11/24/2014 04:27 pm ET Updated Jan 24, 2015

Personal Reflections on Thanksgiving and Cancer

In my usual blogposts here, I write about cancer in the workplace and how to create empathetic and compassionate companies. Today is a more personal view. Cancer has personally messed with my holidays more times than I would like to admit. And, yet, Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. Let me elaborate.

My father left us when I was 4 years old. He visited periodically, but by the time I was about 6 or 7, he already had another family. The downside for us, was that my single Mother, raising us, didn't always have the ability to have a lavish Thanksgiving meal. Sometimes we were invited to another family's home. That was cool, but I don't think I really thought about it.

However, the Thanksgiving of my 19th year changed all that. We were preparing a meal that day, the phone rang at 9:00 a.m. and my aunt's voice said... "Ann, is your Mother there... your father died this morning... suddenly and unexpectedly." (I believe it was a heart attack.) Needless to say, that wiped out the joy of Thanksgiving day for me and continued to do so for many years. I wondered many things, like, why my father was not a strong presence in my life (and how I had wanted him to be) but I also wondered about the unfairness of such a grave loss on such a special day.

Fast forward, I'm 31 years old, I'm married, pregnant and happy. I'm living in Chicago. My mother and my brother fly up to spend the holiday weekend with us. It's the first time in many years that we are together and I make a feast. When my brother flies in the day before, he tells us he found a lump under his arm. It definitely didn't feel right. We find a doctor the day after and the doctor says, "go back to Atlanta and have that looked at ... I'm concerned." My mother flies back with him and by Tuesday we have a diagnosis of malignant melanoma. By the next Thanksgiving (actually in September) my brother has died a brutal death. He was only 27 years old. Two more Thanksgivings (the one before the diagnosis and the following one after his death) were basically ruined by bad news.

The hardest part that year, was having my mother fly up again for the Thanksgiving two months after my brother's death. Her grief was palpable; there was no way to get around it. But, I put on my happy face and we all played with my adorable 7 month old baby. He made it all okay.

I spent the remaining years making lavish Thanksgiving meals and inviting everyone I could think of to keep myself busy and not be able to remember the sadder ones. I was a robot -- shopping, preparing -- anything so I didn't have to feel or think.

Many years later, after my divorce, I found places to go and sometimes still cooked myself. But, then came the year I was in chemotherapy for my own breast cancer. I remember going to a friend's house in Brooklyn. It was a small group. I would sit at the table, eat a few bites, then go to the couch and lie down. This was repeated throughout the night. But, my friends were very supportive and helpful and I was very grateful to be alive, despite not feeling so very well. That was definitely a year to remember.

So, what have a learned through all these experiences?
1. Be grateful all the time. Don't save your thankful thoughts for one day a year.
2. Be with people you want to be with -- don't force yourself to be with others where it's not so pleasant, especially family. These last dozen years of being divorced has brought me some of my best celebrations because I choose who to be with.
3. Don't be afraid to show your emotions, you are who you are and you feel what you feel. Express those feelings honestly -- cry, laugh, etc.
4. Tell those you love that you love them, all the time.
5. Develop new traditions if the old ones no longer work or if they are sad.

The last Thanksgiving I experienced was last year. It was two months after my son had melanoma. He was fairly recovered from the surgery and didn't require any treatment since there had been no spread into the lymph system (Thank G-d). To say that we had things to be grateful for would be an understatement. We were over the moon with gratefulness that he was healthy and that I was still healthy. Although I was back in NY and not with him on that day, I knew that I had turned a tide somehow and now vow to be happy about the day from here on out, no matter what.

This week, I am hosting a gathering at my apartment with very good friends. We will be sharing the responsibility for food, although I'll make the turkey. We'll drink Prosecco and good wine. I will invite everyone at the table to share what they are grateful for (my son would be rolling his eyes about now. He always thought that was corny).

As Thursday winds down and people leave, and the dishes are washing in the dishwasher, I'll take a private moment to be grateful for my being cancer-free now for five years, for my son being cancer-free for over a year and for all the opportunities I am blessed with.

Has it been easy these past many years? Absolutely not. Have I had a lot of fun? Yes. Do I sometimes struggle with that age-old question of "what's next?" Of course. My intention, however, is to live in the moment as much as I can today, and then again the next today, etc. That's a tough one for me, as I tend to be a worrier.

I wish you a wonderful day of gratefulness!

Ann Fry is the Workplace Cancer and Disease Crisis Coach. She trains managers to engage and support people at work who are impacted by Cancer or a major illness (either their own or that of a loved one.) She's the person to call when the Executive teams needs to "triage" and sort through the crisis when one of their own is impacted. She can facilitate the conversation and help set the str