Appreciating Life In The Face Of Cancer

06/05/2011 10:54 am ET | Updated Aug 05, 2011

I clearly remember the day my oncologist told me I had cancer.

We had done some specialized testing, following which he said that I had DCIS -- a form of breast cancer. It was the best type of cancer I could be diagnosed with, he said. However, it was but a small consolation.

The course of action decided upon was to operate and take out the portion of the breast with the cancer in it, checking the perimeters to see if they were clean. As I sat on the examining table in my blue hospital gown, I looked around at everything. My mind was reeling at 100 kilometers an hour. I remember the details of the examining room; the equipment that was in it and the color on the wall. Those details are engraved in my mind.

I'm sure that most cancer patients and survivors have had similar experiences, with memories that are just as vivid.

I also vividly remember the day that my oncologist revealed my pathology results to me. It was the visit after I had a lumpectomy -- my first operation. The memories from this day are also etched into my mind, down to the smallest detail. This appointment was much more serious than the first, although my optimism was high all day leading up to it. I was sure that they had gotten all the cancer out. The margins would be clear and my life would go on as intended ...

That would not be the case. The margins were not clear and I had some decisions to make. I can see myself sitting there -- this time on a chair and in a different examining room. It was a beautiful spring day and the sun was shining. I know, because this particular room had windows. I could see the sunlight trying to filter through the slits of the blinds. I had never felt so alone.

Following a long discussion with my doctor, I left the office drained and confused. In a dream-like fog, I made my way back to my car while my thoughts embarked on a wild roller coaster ride of their own. I had gone to see the doctor alone -- partly because my stubborn self was sure I was going to receive some good news. Now I had a 75-minute ride home; some of it in commuter traffic. In a way, the ride helped me organize my thoughts, so that I could put on a brave face for my three daughters who were waiting for me at home. This was only the beginning of my long journey.

I'm sure that many cancer patients have similar stories to mine. The details and diagnosis may differ, but the circumstances around how they are informed that they have cancer are the same.

But it is the way we deal with the emotions resulting from our diagnosis that is key -- and this is the hard part. Initially a patient will be shocked. This is quickly followed by feelings of fear and self-pity. Then there's the anger. Why me? Why was I dealt the lousy hand?

It is this anger that can be most damaging. Most people would not blame us for being this angry. But you can't be angry and grateful at the same time. And being grateful is important -- especially when accepting and dealing with a cancer diagnosis.

Even though I was given bad news, I continued to be grateful for what I did have in my life. The way I handled life under these circumstances was an important lesson that I wanted my daughters to carry with them as they got older. There is always something to be grateful for, even under the most dire of circumstances. It could be as simple as a great night's sleep and as important as being surrounded by loved ones.

Concentrating on the good things allowed me to slowly eliminate the anger that was tucked away in my heart. It provided me with optimism for the future and best of all, provided an lesson to others that even the most seemingly hopeless situation can be positive ... they need only to give thanks and be grateful.