Recently I publicly expressed some frustrations over the ways in which my body is different after having survived pancreatic cancer. In response, I had a friend wonder why I was not more grateful just to be alive. Though I have tried to practice gratitude on a daily basis, her point was well taken and really made me ponder my own attitudes and beliefs. Am I being ungrateful? Should I just be happy that I am alive at all?
Practicing gratitude has become an ingrained part of my daily life. I have thanked my doctors, the nurses, my medical team and hopefully every person who has supported me along the way. I am thankful for every day I have with my family. Things could have turned out much differently for me, and I am painfully aware of that fact. I have had friends with Pancreatic Cancer pass away. I have friends who are currently in hospice. I have friends who are fighting their disease with every last breath in their body. I never, ever can forget how differently things could have turned out for my family and me. But I think we can be grateful to be alive and still hope for more out of life.
I remember a few months ago, asking some friends of mine who are battling pancreatic cancer what they wanted the world to know about them and their fight. One woman said, “That we don’t just want to be living. We understand that our bodies aren’t going to be able to do everything they did before. But we want to live as well as we possibly can.” At the time, I was so close to my cancer treatments that I did not entirely “get” what this survivor was saying. I was still thinking how I was “just happy to be alive”.I think there comes a time for many of us who have survived something significant that we start to think about the possibilities in life as we move beyond basic survival mode. That is a good thing. It is part of the healing process.
None of us knows how much time we have left in life. But for those of us who have had a potentially deadly diagnosis, we are even more aware of our limited time on this planet. Now that I am a ways out from my diagnosis and treatment, I am getting to a place where I believe that I have a long-term future. I never forget that my cancer could come back at any moment in time, as I have seen this happen time and time again among my fellow survivors. But no matter how much time I have left, I want to make the most of it. I want to make a difference in the world. I want to do epic things that challenge me and push me. I want to live, love, work, play, run, explore and push boundaries.
So should I just be happy to be alive? The goal of life should be not to simply just exist, but to thrive. We would never tell a child who survived cancer that they should not look forward to growing up, going to college, getting married and living a full life. We would never say, “Hey, why do you think you are entitled to having the things that other people dream of? You should just be happy to be alive!”
We applaud and encourage people who have overcome other problems. We cheer and applaud the efforts of those living with differently- abled bodies who attempt to do extraordinary things. We want to see them dream big, live large and succeed. I cannot imagine people telling someone who lives with a prosthetic limb, for example, that they should just be happy to be alive. We want people to overcome obstacles and not just live but live well.
So, I wonder why it should be different for those of us who have endured the kinds of things my fellow cancer survivors and I have endured? I wonder if it is in part because Pancreatic Cancer is deemed such a hopeless disease. I was reading recently how even many doctors view Pancreatic Cancer as a death sentence. But, if you talk to those of us who have lived through it or who are living with it, we do not see ourselves as hopeless.I am missing a couple of organs. That does not mean I am ready to hang it up and just exist. No matter how much time I have, I never want to stop imaging the possibilities in my life. I hope I always have dreams, goals and aspirations. Those are the things that help to make us better human beings.
I do think it is possible to be grateful and still want or demand more than just existence. My hope is that with my determination and with the help of the medical community, people who have had my kind of surgery can attain a better quality of life long-term. The first goal for Pancreatic Cancer patients is, of course, survival. The second goal needs to be attaining a good quality of life for those of us who have undergone radical surgeries. I do not want to see any more pancreatic cancer survivors stuck at home because their bodies no longer allow them to live full lives. I want to see more survivors and I want to see those survivors doing all of the things that they want to do with their lives. I fully believe that we can and should aim for a great quality of life.
For now, I am grateful that I got in lots of good running mileage this week. This is my first 100 mile week since before I was diagnosed with cancer. I remember thinking before my surgery that I might never run again. I am so thankful for every step I get to take.
Finally, the word “inspiration” makes me slightly uncomfortable. Whenever someone tells me that my story has inspired them in some way, I feel myself squirm a bit. However, when someone’s story inspires us, it helps us imagine possibilities that we had not considered before. I want to take a moment to mention people who have inspired me and lifted me up over these past couple of weeks.
Ultrarunner Larry DeWitt is a guy I literally met in passing a couple of years ago when I was training for the Vermont 100. I stopped him because he was wearing an ultrarunning shirt and I wanted to connect with other local ultrarunners. We enjoyed a pleasant chat and then did not cross paths again until recently. Larry is an accomplished runner and cyclist, but that’s not what I appreciate about him. What I love about Larry is that he is a genuinely humble, kind, caring and encouraging person. He is also someone who has overcome some of his own health issues, and his story has given me comfort and hope for my own future.
Larry and his two friends Jeff Mulder and Matt Larsen are currently training to run the Burning RIver 100 in honor of Ben, who has had childhood cancer. They are raising money for a children’s hospital, which is a noble endeavor. You can read Larry’s outstanding blog here:
Their Facebook page Burning River for Ben is here:
Please check out what they are doing. They are great men who are running for a great cause. They are training hard to achieve their goals and they inspire me to keep doing what I am doing.