First of all, let’s get one thing straight. A cancer diagnosis is like having a very large turd descend upon your unsuspecting head from a very great height, out of nowhere. Suddenly: SHIT. And I don’t care what anyone says – you don’t have to be philosophical, positive, or grateful regarding any of it. The world gaslights you enough. You don’t need to do that to yourself. If it feels horrible and scary, that’s because it IS horrible and scary, and the least you can do is tell yourself the truth about that.

However, I will say that gratitude is saving me. Or rather, gratitude is how I am saving myself.

When the confirmation phone call came, I was already in space.

I basically floated out of my body from the moment the nonchalant tech who did my needle biopsy said, “Yeah, I’d say 50% chance it’s cancer.” (Really, you scrub-wearing, wispy goatee-having EXPERT? You feel qualified to say that to a terrified woman who has just had her boob used as a pin cushion in the same tone that you’d order an artisanal beer? Thanks.) When the confirmation phone call came, I was already in space.

The weeks and months that followed forced me to attend to my physical shell, but staying in it, staying in the shitty, barfy, achy moment was really hard. If you’ve done this dance, you know the steps. One-two-three-four, shuffle to the bathroom…five-six-seven-eight, chug those pills…You go through the motions, but you feel like a ghost in your own life.

One day, as I scrolled through Facebook because the screen in front of me had become my portal to life beyond the sick bed, I decided to make a list of little things that were good. It made me feel better. Every time I thought of something, it felt like I’d found a forgotten M&M in the bottom of my purse: small, grubby, but still an undeniable Good Thing. (I choose to believe that M&Ms have an indefinite shelf life because of preservatives and magic. Fight me.) I wrote it. I posted it. I fell back asleep in a medicated haze.

Making Lists

I soon found that this list-making was addictive. I’m not talking about the daily gratitudes people post during the run-up to Thanksgiving (hashtag #blessed) where they talk about their families and their abundance. These were the kind of lists you scribble on the back of a grocery receipt. The kind that only make sense to you and maybe three of your weirdest friends. And the validation they provided was better than when you’ve been shopping all day and forgotten to get your parking ticket stamped so you run into the nearest coffee shop and the nice barista pulls out a roll of stamps and slaps them on the back of that baby even though you haven’t ordered anything. That good.

Gratitude was the tattered rope bridge I crawled across to get to sanity when everything else was on fire.

I know there’s been research about mindfulness practice and how it can actually increase your survival rate because something-something telomeres something-something immune response blah blah blah. And I’ve always despaired a bit because I am terrible at meditation. I can’t do yoga at all – I just wear the pants. I was the squirmiest Buddhist ever during my college “seeker” days. But gratitude, I can do.

I comb through the dreck of my day and pick out the shiny bits.

I’ve always loved walking the beach and looking for smooth bits of glass and interesting shells amid the decaying seaweed and washed-up trash. This is like that. I still do it, almost every day. I comb through the dreck of my day and pick out the shiny bits. Sometimes it’s easy, sometimes it’s not.

Items from my lists:

– coffee
– when the cat puts his head all the way down on my chest
– sunlight that comes in sideways through the window
– inappropriate GIFs
– sunglasses that make you invisible so you don’t have to engage in small talk
– nurses who know how to do an IV on the first try
– really stupid reality shows that make you feel better about your trainwreck life
– Xanax

Every time I put something down on my list, it’s another treasure in my sandy pocket. It’s another moment in time that I am aware of while it’s happening. I think this is what the woo-woo folks call presence. I’m anchoring myself to the earth, one bullet point at a time.

It doesn’t take away the fear. It doesn’t change my new reality. But it makes a clear space where I can breathe and rest and figure out the next step.

This post was originally published on The Underbelly.

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