Sure, I'm looking forward to Thanksgiving this year. Last January, in lieu of New Year's Resolutions, I dubbed 2011 "The Year of Awesome". Finally, a year that didn't involve rehab/needles/surgery/medication/feeling like a burden. And it truly has been an amazing year; my book came out in March, we had a wonderful family trip in May to Disney World, we got to enjoy a fun but busy summer, Steve loves working for himself, and so far it's been a terrific school year for Jason. There were countless special moments over the past 11 months, and it's shaping up to be a memorable holiday season.
However, I know this has not been an awesome year for lots of people. Among those close to me, I have a long-time friend who has battled breast cancer, and another close friend suffering from serious immune deficiencies. The children of another dear friend are struggling with anxiety issues, and a new friend has just started a 6-month chemotherapy regimen. Yet another friend is coping with some lingering, bothersome after-effects of a stem cell transplant, and still another is caring for both of her ill parents in her home. And these are just a few of my closest friends; there are countless others I feel a deep connection to through the amyloidosis support groups, both on- and off-line. I can see from the emails flying back and forth that many have just been diagnosed, or have a spouse or loved one who has the disease. Many are just beginning their treatment; various chemotherapy protocols or a full-on bone marrow transplant. Dealing with fear, concern and ill health, it can seem impossible to feel thankful at this time of year.
Having all my own crap behind me doesn't make it any easier for me to relish a stress-free long weekend with my family, skip while doing my holiday shopping, or sing along to holiday music as I cook and wrap gifts either. I can't stop wondering what I can possibly do for these people so dear to me and close to my heart. How can I help? Sure, I can deliver a meal, spend an afternoon, lend out some relaxation tapes or share tips that worked for me while I was going through a similar challenge. But I wish I could just wave a magic wand and "make it all better".
The one strategy that keeps coming to mind over and over again is to be thankful for what IS working; to feel gratitude for what IS going right. At my lowest points, I would try and shake myself out of a slump and remind myself of everything I appreciated: the best doctors, an effective treatment, generous family and friends, health insurance. On a lighter note, but no less important: extra time to read some great books,
a husband who knew how to turn on the oven/vacuum/iron, a kid who was willing to help a bit more around the house for a reasonable allowance. It took practice, but eventually I developed a habit of "changing the channel" from gloom and doom to the glass being half full, at least for a moment. No sunshine and rainbows, but over time the cumulative effect of shifting my focus from negative to slightly more positive gradually helped me believe that I did in fact have so much to be thankful for. And there is scientific proof that the placebo effect can have a measurable impact on physical health. Just yesterday, I opened my new issue of Women's Health to see an article on the topic (check out the December issue, p. 128). If believing a "fake" pill or substance can improve one's symptoms, then what are the possibilities when one truly believes that real medical treatment will be successful?
I wish I could rent out my husband to lighten up doctor visits. Not even the most stoic patient would be able to keep a straight face while Steve inflated surgical gloves, impersonated a naughty nurse, or made up his own medical vocabulary (don't try and find the term "schnarfalate" in the Webster's Dictionary). When so much seemed so very unfunny, finding a little bit of humor at unexpected times was a welcome relief. There's been a lot of research showing that laughter has a therapeutic effect in lowering stress hormones, which in turn has health benefits. Sometimes I needed something a bit more potent than Steve, and that's when I'd turn to Netflix for "The Hangover", "Harold & Kumar" or "Knocked Up" for some laughs!
Back to my special friends facing their own personal challenges...thankfully my friend's breast cancer treatment was a success, she's feeling great, the prognosis is good, and I'm thankful that every now and then she and her family come into town for a visit. I am grateful that a monthly treatment exists for my friend's immune condition, and so glad that I live close enough to be able to spend the afternoon with her the following day. I'm thankful for the team of professionals available to my friend's children, and am confident that they will flourish. I'm so glad that my new friend's oncologist is optimistic and reassuring about the treatability of her condition...I don't think doctors say "You're going to be fine!" if they didn't believe it. I know my other friend is in good hands post-transplant, and while it may take longer than she'd like to fully recover, I'm grateful she is improving every day. I'm so thankful that my friend's husband is incredibly supportive of her and fully involved in caring for her parents, and I'm glad that with the help of other family members she is able to take frequent breaks to recharge. Whenever I see an email from a new member of the amyloidosis support group introducing themselves, or announcing the recent diagnosis of a spouse or family member, of course I wish they hadn't received this news. But I am also thankful that they were successfully diagnosed; I'm grateful that someone along the way knew what to look for and requested the proper tests. I'm glad that somehow they were referred to the group for information, support, and guidance, and also thankful for my own experience which allows me to be helpful. I'm happy that they can now receive answers to their questions, and the treatment they need.
The collective feeling of thankfulness throughout the country in the course of a single day is what makes Thanksgiving so meaningful. It's a designated day on the calendar in which we can teach our children to appreciate the food on the table, the roof over their heads, the toys that they own, the freedom that they enjoy. But what could be more powerful than teaching them that there is always something to be thankful for, all year round, even in the most challenging of circumstances? What if we were able to find something to appreciate every day of the year? What if we not only expressed our thankfulness over one November dinner, but at every meal, in good times and in "not-so-great" times? Once we've mastered an "attitude of gratitude", why not pass it down to the next generation?