I had my final PRRT treatment (also called radioisotope therapy) today. I’ve been injected with potent radioactive material at Edmonton’s Cross Cancer Institute fourteen times; MIBG twice and then Lutetium twelve times as part of a clinical trial. The clinic staff and other patients seemed to think that reaching this milestone was pretty exciting. In one sense, I guess it was, but it also feels a bit like stepping off a cliff! My neuroendocrine cancer (NETs) has been stable for almost six years, the entire time that I’ve been undergoing treatment. The tumours have not grown or spread. In fact, earlier on there was even some indication that they might be shrinking. I’m happy not to have to go through any more of these treatments and the week of radioactive seclusion that follows each one, but the stepping off a cliff sensation comes from the fact that I’ve now exhausted the best treatment option available. The human body can only withstand so much radioactivity. Even if the government agreed to fund more treatments, the doctors wouldn’t advise them for me. The plan from here on in is to simply monitor my cancer with blood work, CT scans, and clinic visits every six months. Considering the fact that NETs is incurable, that’s a bit unnerving. (I will continue to receive the monthly injections of Sandostatin that control symptoms and may have some effect on the tumours themselves.)
The Cross Cancer Institute is set up to administer PRRT treatments to three patients at a time. We sit together, each of us in a comfortable recliner, in a room set aside for this purpose. The process takes approximately four hours, so naturally we visit and share our cancer stories. I’ve never been with the same patient twice, so that’s quite a few stories over the past few years and each one is unique.
Today I shared the treatment room with a retired school teacher from Victoria, BC and a retired school administrator from a community much closer to my own. How unusual and how interesting that three retired educators ended up in that room together! Our conversation quickly came around to the fact that while we don’t choose many of the circumstances of our lives, including cancer, we do choose how we respond to them. Then the retired principal, an upbeat and cheerful man, made a comment that really resonated with me. He said that he believes that there are two keys to living a happy, successful life: forgiveness and gratitude.
That thought stuck with me throughout the remainder of the day. It’s definitely very true for me. I won’t go into detail, but I have had much to forgive, and in spite of that, I’m the first to admit that I also have much to be grateful for.
After pondering for awhile, I googled “forgiveness and gratitude” and was surprised to find many articles linking the two. Even more surprising to me was the fact that these weren’t Christian or religious writings. The fact that forgiveness and gratitude are positive psychological characteristics that are connected to well-being seemed to be a common theme. Both terms are complex and neither is easy to define.
Forgiveness is a conscious choice or decision to let go of anger, fear, self-pity, resentment, bitterness, hostility, and even hatred resulting from something someone has done to us or something that we’ve done ourselves and to replace those emotions with more positive ones such as peace, love, and joy. Forgiving a person doesn’t excuse what they did. It isn’t really about them at all; it’s about setting ourselves free. It releases us from the negative consequences of unforgiveness which may include anxiety, depression, and even physical symptoms of stress. It liberates us from a cycle of negativity and anger and allows us to open our hearts to gratitude, happiness, and love. I’ve heard it said that unforgiveness is like drinking poison and hoping it will kill the other person.
Gratitude is a feeling of thankful appreciation for people, circumstances, and situations in life. Grateful individuals feel a sense of abundance, appreciate the simple pleasures of life, and recognize the contribution others make to their well-being.
Forgiveness is probably the more difficult of these two human virtues to put into action, but until we do, I think we’ll find it difficult to experience and express true gratitude. Professor Robert Emmons at the University of California, Davis, suggests that attitude change often follows behaviour change. By expressing gratitude that we may not necessarily feel through simple gestures like smiling and saying thank you, we may actually begin to feel it. The same is true of forgiveness. We may not feel like forgiving a person, but if we choose to act as if we have, we may eventually find that our resentment has faded away and we will, in fact, have forgiven them.
So, what does all this have to do with living with cancer? Obviously my cancers are no one’s fault. Not mine, not anyone else’s. However, if I was still living with unforgiveness, I doubt I’d have the emotional energy I need to deal with the ups and downs of this journey. And what about gratitude? Am I thankful for cancer? Absolutely not! That being said, however, I have so many things to be thankful for! In spite of having just been diagnosed with a third completely unrelated cancer, I feel healthy! I can eat almost anything I want, I can travel, hike, and even do a rope course with my grandchildren! I have an amazing circle of friends, family, and prayer warriors around the world loving me and supporting me and I have a faith that gives me “peace that passes understanding.” Philippians 4:7
Am I the courageous hero that people often tell me I am? No, I’m not, but as we concluded in our treatment room today, I can choose how I respond to my circumstances and I choose to be hopeful and positive. I choose to get on with life even if I feel a bit like I stepped off a cliff today.
Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good. His love endures forever. Psalm 136:1
Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. Ephesians 4:32