Heather Jose: ‘The greatest gift cancer gave to me …’

Heather Jose

Heather Jose

A note from your host: “This week, a lot of readers have been talking about a photo I shared on my Facebook account of my adopted son as we celebrated his 13th birthday. Along with the photo, I wrote: “The greatest gift cancer gave to me was the opportunity to adopt.” The moment I posted that line, friends began asking for more of the story. So, today, here is the story of how we got Ty.”

“Would you consider adopting a baby boy from India?”

This question led me to my son. I had sent an inquiry to several adoption agencies asking them if they would work with me given my status as a breast-cancer survivor. I got many responses, but this one sparked my interest.

Once I had finally talked my husband into adopting, I started exploring countries. India hadn’t really been on my list, but after a few conversations I was hooked.

In 2001, India had a low incidence of drug and alcohol use. The orphanages were generally very well staffed and children were paired with ayahs so that they could bond. And, because of concerns about caste and religion, many Indian families would not consider adopting even a perfect child.

We began our search in January 2001 with all of the paperwork and home studies. By spring we were moving right along and ready to be matched. Then the government in India shut down all of the adoptions in the Southern part of the country due to corruption. Fast forward to September 2001—does that ring a bell? The world became a whole lot smaller and the feud between India and Pakistan intensified.

Ty age 18 months within the first week that he was homeFortunately, in January of 2002 my agency established relations with a small orphanage in Pune and we were matched with a little boy. He was the first boy they had had in a long time. His birthday was January 22, 2001, right about the time we starting praying for him.

The adoption process was delayed until summer by red tape—then more red tape. My mom and I arrived in Mumbai during a monsoon. My husband stayed home, partly because we didn’t know when we would travel and partly because we didn’t want to bring our daughter Sydney. Ty and I met the next day at the orphanage. We were brought there by a social worker. Upon our arrival we were introduced to the person in charge and ushered in to an outdoor space to have a warm Coke. I remember thinking, “how fast can I drink this so I can meet him?”

With the coke gone, I was able to meet my son.

He was beautiful. He was terrified.

They put him in my arms and he kept looking away. His ayah kept pointing to me and saying something akin to momma. I just shushed and rocked him. Next, there was a little ceremony involving flowers, sweets, and bindis. And then we were off!

They had given us a banana in case he was hungry and we left in a hired car. He loved the car. Since we didn’t have a car seat Ty stood on my lap and held on to the handle above the door. The social worker stopped and helped us get a few groceries that Ty might like and we returned to the hotel.

We spent the next couple of days doing nothing at the hotel. It was great. Ty was wary at first but within 24 hours he called me “Mama.” We played with the toys I had brought and spent a lot of time looking out of the window that overlooked a busy street. At any given moment you could see oxen, cars, rickshaws, children in school uniforms, or women in beautiful saris. My mom would reach her arms out to Ty and say, “Up?”

Soon he was calling her “Up”!

After Pune we traveled by plane to Delhi where we visited the embassy. We were the first people to come through for an adoption since 9/11 with our specific guide. We tried to do a little sightseeing, but I quickly decided against it given the 108-degree heat with an 18-month-old who was still getting to know me. I enjoyed our time in the hotel room bowling with water bottles and answering the phone endlessly.

The trip home took forever. I may have not gone through labor to have Ty in my arms, but 18 hours on a plane was no picnic. We arrived in Detroit out of diapers  and completely exhausted.Facebook photo of Ty by Heather Jose

My husband was at the airport to meet us along with our daughter and in-laws. Ty was even more terrified of my husband. He hadn’t met many men in India. He wouldn’t let Larry near him.

Fortunately, Ty adjusted amazingly well. He hit the ground running. After getting over his fear of Larry he became Larry’s shadow. I have no doubt that Ty was meant to be with us.

Now, about that line I typed into Facebook recently: I would never say that cancer is a “gift,” but cancer did change the path of my life and because of it I have had experiences that never would have been. I can honestly say that I had never thought about adoption prior to cancer.

Now, I can’t imagine my life without Ty.

Celebrating a Cancerversary: Reflecting on hard-earned wisdom

Heather Jose photo.

Heather Jose

December 17, 1998

This is my 15th Cancerversary. This may be the first time you’ve heard the term. It doesn’t have its own Wikipedia page—yet. Google Trends says the term doesn’t have enough history to track—yet. But lots of cards, buttons, shirts and graphics are showing up online made by people proudly celebrating the anniversaries of their cancer diagnoses.

I’m celebrating by counting my blessings—my hard-earned wisdom about life that I have accumulated over these 15 long years. My husband and I have different feelings about acknowledging the day. Each year, he asks: “Why would you celebrate that? It was the worst day of my life.”

While I agree with that, it feels like too big of an event to just let pass. That day changed everything. I view it more as a day of reflection. I want to think about all of the things I have been able to enjoy since that day, to never forget what it feels like to be without hope, and to move forward with purpose, knowing that days on earth are in no way guaranteed.

Cancerversary graphics and cards online

Many graphics for this observance are popping up online, from cards and buttons to shirts and other mementos.

I have lived with cancer for more than a third of my life now. I am sure I have forgotten many things about how I lived without knowing it. It has given me a different way of evaluating things. Here are some of my reflections. If you’re marking such a date, each year, what are yours? (Please, comment below or share this with friends via Facebook or email or by printing this on paper via the button below.)


I have learned to say no. Now, I think about whether a new task or job is worth the energy and stress it requires—before I tackle the project. I consider the toll it would take on myself and my family and whether or not it will bring joy or fulfillment in some way.

I have realized through the years that almost everyone has a “cancer”—or major burden—in life. This “cancer” may not have come with the warning to “get your affairs in order,” but just the same it was a catalyst to change. Some people heed the warning to change and some don’t. You can’t do it for them.

Sometimes the only way to get through something is to put your head down and do the work required. There isn’t a free pass around going through treatment. It isn’t pleasant at times—but nothing lasts forever.

Every person I have ever met who has had cancer has some level of fear of recurrence. We are the ones who immediately think—”It’s cancer!”—with any ache or pain. This fear can be managed. For me, the anticipation of what could be wrong is far worse than finding out the real source of the ache or pain. I manage the fear of recurrence by staying on top of changes in my body, talking them over with my husband, or going to the doctor when a symptom won’t go away.

There really are seasons in life. Find the good in each of them. When my season was treatment I viewed my life with amazing clarity. Sometimes, my season is a time to provide for my family and I learn to juggle in that season with a sense of real accomplishment. I face different demands, different priorities and different joys in each phase of life. I need to cherish the blessings in each one.

Attitude matters. All of the time. I am not a naturally bubbly person, but I have learned to embrace positivity for the good of my mind and body. I strive to view everything for the good that is in it.

Guilt is counterproductive as a constant companion. For example, one of my goals is to eat food the nourishes my body. However, I don’t always do that. In fact, just last night we had fondue, which is definitely not healthy. I am not going to beat myself up over that choice and do more damage through guilt. Instead I enjoyed it all and I am going to start out healthy today and go forward.

Look for joy. Spend time with people you love. Keep in touch with old friends. One of my friends has decided to connect with me every Thursday in some way. It may be a short text or a long Facebook message. Regardless I have found myself looking forward to it and I have decided to promote this idea myself. Now, I’ve begun a monthly “check in” with another friend because of this.

Do little things that bring you happiness. I have mentioned before that I love to have coffee from a real mug as opposed to a travel mug. It is a small thing, but it makes me happy.

Look for opportunities to connect with those around you; don’t be too busy to do something that would enrich your life. We have a hot tub on our deck and my family loves to use it. I don’t love the 10 steps outside to get in and out of it, but to share that time with the four of us, disconnected from the world and sharing our lives—those 10 chilly steps are worth it! Everytime.

Stay in the moment. We often spend all of our time anticipating something and then forget to enjoy it when it actually happens.

If you haven’t read my book, Every Day We are Killing Cancer, it will take you on my journey through cancer. I would love to share it with you. Have you dealt with cancer? Care to share the date of your Cancerversary and something you have learned in the comments below?

Rodney Curtis: What I wish caregivers knew

Heather Jose photo.

Heather Jose

All of us who know Rodney are thrilled that he has completed his trilogy of books, taking readers through his struggles with both unemployment—in Getting Laid (Off)—and cancer—in A “Cute” Leukemia. Millions face these dire challenges. Rodney shows us how to tackle it all with humor. Today, you can learn a lot more about Rodney’s life and work in an interview with ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm. You’ll find that Rodney isn’t just some goofy guy. He knows a whole lot about defeating cancer. So, today, I invited Rodney to write a guest column.




That’s everything, really. The relationship between the person who needs the care and the person who is trying to give it: It all depends on attitude.

When I first learned that I had acute leukemia—and, then, all the way through my long stays in the hospital, losing my hair and eventually a bone-marrow transplant—I heard from people these words: “I can tell you’re going to make it through this. It’s in your attitude.”

And it was.

That's Rodney hugging a friend in the summer of 2010 in the midst of his leukemia.

That’s Rodney in the baseball cap hugging a friend in the summer of 2010 in the midst of his leukemia.

Remember, “attitude” works both ways. First, there is my attitude—my perception of what I was dealing with and how I would relate to the people around me.  I am a true believer that the way you approach this whole experience says a lot about the outcome you can expect on the other end. Heather Jose calls her memoir about becoming a “cancer thriver,” Every Day We Are Killing Cancer. When she was diagnosed, she wrote those words on a little sign and carried that sign with her as a kind of motto, wherever she went.

What we are saying is: You have to approach this with your own passion, your own interests, your own personality behind it. Like Heather carried her sign—I carried my humor. I used a lot of humor, but that’s me: I love humor.

Maybe your thing is music—so you carry your music with you, wherever you go. I met a guy who decided his weeks in the hospital were his job and his hospital room was his office. Every day, his work—his job—was to get better. He thought of the nurses coming in for various reasons as co-workers coming into his office to help him do his job.

Second, the attitude of your caregivers is just as important as your own attitude. Get them on board with you. Because I loved humor, my caregivers loved to play along. I remember one day, the phone in my hospital room rang and it was a nurse, who was somewhere else at that time, laughing and saying: “Rodney Curtis! Turn on channel 7—STAT!” There was something funny on the TV that she wanted me to see. Because they knew my attitude, caregivers could become a part of that, too.

You’ve got to be honest and open.

If you suddenly find yourself needing help—let’s say you’ve just heard the diagnosis: “Cancer.” Well, I can tell you: It’s a mistake to step back from your friends and all the people who love you, if you can possibly avoid that. The best attitude includes reaching out to all the people around you. Use your connections. Use your social media. I mean, just think of all the tools and software and devices we have today to keep in touch! It’s brilliant.

And, in the first experiences you have in the role as a caregiver, you should be reaching out, too. Don’t be shy. Don’t pussy-foot around. Ask questions.

Here’s what happens all too often when someone is diagnosed with cancer: People hold back and are afraid to ask questions. They’re thinking: Ohhhh, Rodney’s got cancer. I shouldn’t ask him about it! But I’ll tell you: I’m sure that people imagine far more horrible things, if they don’t ask and don’t talk honestly with you—than anything I could tell them.

Then, if you want to help—step up and suggest something. Get specific. I know that people have different responses to this issue. From my own experience, I think it’s best when people who want to be good caregivers come up with real things they can do—and then offer to do these things, specifically.

Here’s an example: You can go up to a friend who needs help and you can say: “Hey, if there’s anything you need, just let me know.” And, yeah, that’s an OK expression of concern.

But I think it’s far better to say: “Can I make you dinner tomorrow night?” And then, “Is it OK if I make this for dinner?” Or, you could say: “Can I mow your lawn on Saturday?” Or, “Could my buddy and I come over and rake your leaves today?”

By offering specific suggestions, you’re telling the person what level of help you’re offering. You might hear back: “No, I really don’t need that.” Still, it gives that person who needs the help a good chance to say, “I don’t need that—but, I really could use this! How about doing this, instead?”

The real question is: Will we close ourselves off and back away from life and from other people? Will we become the patient in the bed? Will we give up our personalities? Or will we try, as best we can, to remain ourselves—and to help each other get through this.

To me, that’s attitude.


VISIT RODNEY CURTIS’S AUTHOR PAGE IN OUR BOOKSTORE: Learn more about Rodney; read sample chapters—and use the easy links in our bookstore to buy copies of his book through Amazon, Barnes & Noble or other retailers. (Yes, you can buy print or e-editions.)

ENJOY RODNEY CURTIS’S LATEST COLUMNS: His department within ReadTheSpirit has been a favorite destination for our readers over many years.

CHECK OUT RODNEY CURTIS’S INTERVIEW: Our ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm talks with Rodney about how he learned to laugh in the face of fear.

SHARE RODNEY WITH OTHERS: In addition to buying his books—which we recommend, of course—please share this column with friends by using the blue-“f” Facebook icons or the small envelope-shaped email icons.

(Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

Young Caregivers: What We Talk About When We Talk About Entitlement

by Paul Hile

Each year, millions of men and women get life-altering news. We sit. We wait. We wonder: Why us? Why me?

Each year, millions of men and women get life-altering news. We sit. We wait. We wonder: Why us? Why me?

When my mother was diagnosed with brain cancer, I sat alone in a family room at the hospital and wondered aloud why this was happening to my family.

Why my mother? Why my family? Inevitably, I asked: Why me?

The same thing happened when my wife was diagnosed with a rare autoimmune disorder while we were still dating. My young, athletic girlfriend became a dependent, tired woman who was forced to spend too many days on her family’s couch. I asked: Why her? Why did this happen to us? Why me?

Where do these questions come from? I mean, I must have heard someone else raise them. Maybe my folks said these things when my brother was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes. Or maybe I heard it on the television, or in a book. I’ve been thinking a lot about that lately, especially as my wife’s health begins to mend and we’re afforded the time to look back and reflect on the last four years. Throughout her diagnosis and treatment, our family was struggling and, to be frank, angry.

Why were we angry? Well, yes, we were angry because she was now living with a terrible burden, one that was difficult to watch, let alone live with. But the honest to God truth was that she had this burden—whether we liked it or not. My mother had brain cancer. There was nothing we could do to change those realities.

It’s funny—I don’t ever remember being promised good health. I don’t remember ever being told that in my life. Neither does my wife, nor my mother. And that’s because we’ve never been given that promise.

So this question—Why me?—is really a matter of entitlement, right? I feel entitled to good health. I feel entitled to a life without struggle, without pain, without hardship because—well, it’s me. I shouldn’t have to deal with this. My wife shouldn’t have to deal with this. My mother and my family shouldn’t have to deal with this.

Next time you find yourself shouting—This wasn’t supposed to happen!—dare to ask: Says who?

And the answer is: No one. This is dangerous territory. For me, once I moved beyond—Why me?—I was left with just pain, with having to watch the women I love most struggle and suffer and carry a burden I cannot remove, no matter how hard I try. And believe me, I try.

That question—Why me?—let me put off the gravity of each situation. By focusing on the seeming injustice of the news, I was ignoring the reality. I was living somewhere between what once was—and what was to come. That felt more comfortable than asking: What’s next? I was delaying grief, which, in turn, delayed my ability to help my wife and mother.

Here’s the other danger: If I let myself remain there—sitting, wondering over our woes—then the next steps fall to someone else. I can so easily let someone else deal with it all. My wife and I should not have to deal with this, not now, not ever—so someone else should. Of course, I don’t believe that in my heart—but that’s the temptation of remaining lost in: Why me?

When I take my blinders off, when I open my eyes—I realize that we are not alone.

Think about this when you’re sitting in a hospital waiting room paralyzed by the news you’ve just received. There are hundreds—often thousands—of people dealing with the effects of cancer in that hospital alone. Look out the window: Millions of men and women are struggling out there.

The honest question is: Why shouldn’t we be part of the struggle with illness? My wife and mother aren’t entitled to good health. No one is.

I’ve been working on accepting that lately. I’ve been working on acknowledging the fact that my life is my life: My mother is a cancer thriver and deals with life-changing effects from a devastating treatment. My wife has a disorder in which some days really, truly suck. That is my life, and I have to learn to be okay with that.

In the end, here’s what matters: How we live and what we do with our time here on earth. In a world without sickness, my wife and I would still have sought a life of love and happiness, filled with friends and family, good coffee and service to others. The same is still true now. We just have to clear a few more hurdles to get there. We just have to take a few more breaks to let my wife’s body heal.

But we’ll get there, and when we do, we look forward to meeting you and hearing about your life—sickness and all.

When we stop asking—Why me?—we can start to asking: What can I do? How can we live in a way that is purposeful, fulfilling—and splendid?


One way you can respond is by adding a Comment, below. We also invite you to share this column with friends on Facebook by using the blue-“f” icon or via email by using the envelope-shaped icon.

Worried? Got an empty jar? Remind yourself of this truth …

Heather Jose photo.

Heather Jose

A note of thanks: Before I start today’s column—and the wonderful video that goes with it—I want to thank Kathy Macdonald for the four-part series on her journey as a cancer thriver. I also want to thank our growing readership for pitching in. As we move into the fall season of We Are Caregivers, please help us to reach new readers. If you have not done so already, get our free weekly email by clicking on the green “Subscribe” button, above. You can share favorite columns by clicking on the blue-“f” Facebook icon or the envelope-shaped email icon. Millions of Americans are full-time caregivers. Let’s help!


Mason glass jar with lidThere is nothing like a little time spent lying on a scanning machine to help me reevaluate my priorities. Acutely aware of the fact that the results of the scan could send my life spiraling off in a direction I prefer it not go, I assess everything.

What do you think about in the midst of such check ups?

I think: “I could have done a better job eating, working out, or spending time with God.”

Then the wagering begins: “If the results come back ‘clear’—I will do better. I promise.”

A few hours later—when I’ve hear the outcome and know that things still are going well, so no immediate changes are required—I reflect once again. It occurs to me that the way I spend my time is more important than anything else in my life. Time is irreplaceable.

What if the results had been different? I am quite sure that I wouldn’t have found myself saying: “I wish I had spent more time on things that are unfulfilling, on people who are negative, or in situations that don’t matter.”

No, I want to think about time differently.

On the evening after my scan, I went for a jog—which I don’t really enjoy—but even that jog held a new meaning. I was grateful that I could do it. Sure it was hard, but I was pain free and able.

All of this reminded me of the Lesson of the Jar. I found a YouTube version that I can share with you.

Hope you enjoy it!

NOTE: The person who posted this video did place a brief advertisement in the video. It’s short, you can click an “X” to close it—and frankly this is such a great version of the story that I recommend watching it. If you don’t see a video screen in your version of this story, try clicking the headline to reload this column.

Finally, it’s time to say: “Thank you.”

This entry is part 4 of 4 in the series Hard-Earned Lessons of a Cancer Thriver
A Note from Heather Jose: Here is the final column in this series by Kathy Macdonald. I hope you have been inspired. I hope you have shared these columns with friends by using the blue-“f” Facebook icons or the envelope-shaped email icons. I will be returning next week.
One last time, here’s Kathy …


2013 Aug 12 Kathy Macdonald and her prayer quilt FUMC AA 03“Thank you.”

I said it on Sunday. Publicly. During Sunday services at my church, the First United Methodist Church in Ann Arbor. I was flanked by 50 children. Surrounded by several hundred friends lining the pews in front of us.

And, yes, I have to admit that my voice cracked once with the emotion I was feeling. But I made it. And, in the process, I told the children a story that maybe a few of them will remember. You see, our church—like many congregations across the country—sets aside a time with children during Sunday services. One of our pastors, the Rev. Nancy Lynn, was giving a sermon about thankfulness on Sunday, so I used my time with the kids to demonstrate that powerful principle.

Our Children’s Moments work best when the speaker employs a bit of Show ‘n’ Tell. So, I packed up the “prayer quilt” the congregation had made for me when I was in the depths of my struggle with cancer. Congregations have been making this kind of prayer quilt for more than 20 years, using a model pioneered by Prayers & Squares, a grassroots quilting network that coincidentally began in a United Methodist church in California. In this style of quilt, the fabric layers are held together by long strings that church members gather to tie with silent prayers offered while tying each knot. Then, during a pastoral visit that week, the quilt is delivered.

The children were wide-eyed as I spread out my quilt on Sunday morning. Some were so intrigued that they stood up and eventually helped to hold the entire quilt aloft. I explained: “You know, after they gave me this quilt, I carried it with me everywhere. I never went to sleep at night, not once, without this prayer quilt. This quilt was made by all those people out there.” And I directed the kids’ gaze to the parents and grandparents sitting in the pews.

“I guess you could say I slept with everybody in this church!” I said, which drew a roar of laughter from the adults.

This was funny because there I was—laughing along with all of them. They all had helped me to become a cancer thriver. All of us were a part of that story I was sharing in my few moments with the children.

The entire story took five or six minutes. But, my message on Sunday really was two words: “Thank you.”

I told the crowd surrounding me: “I wouldn’t be here today doing this—without all of you. Thank you.”

The day’s scripture reading? It was about Jesus healing a group of 10 desperately ill people—and then only one of them bothered to return and thank him. Professionally, I’m a business consultant and, believe me, I understand how that happens. We recover. We get back into the swing of things. Our caregivers must know how thankful we are, right!?! We get busy with life and—we forget.

As I’ve said throughout this four-week series of columns: I don’t want to forget.

I want to remember so that in many ways, I can say: Thanks.

And, now, in reading these stories, you have become a part of this journey, too.

So, dear readers: Thank you.


How about you? What are you thankful for? Please, add a comment below. And share this column with a friend. Perhaps add your own thanks to that friend as you share this column.

You know you’re recovering when—you’ve a taste for black humor

This entry is part 2 of 4 in the series Hard-Earned Lessons of a Cancer Thriver
A Note from Heather Jose:
As your host at We Are Caregivers, I’m pleased to welcome back guest columnist Kathy Macdonald. She’s also my aunt and a helper in my own journey through cancer, the story I share in Every Day We are Killing Cancer. Now, Kathy and I share even more: She has joined me in the ranks of cancer thrivers. She is sharing her inspiring story as a cancer thriver in four parts. Click on the headlines in the index box, at right, to enjoy each part.

A Taste for Black Humor

By Kathy Macdonald

Coca Cola in a tall glass

DARK HUMOR? Is this a glass of Coca-Cola or the start of a medical procedure!?! Kidding aside—Coca-Cola has been medically tested to open clogged feeding tubes in a number of scientific trials. Its acidity (just above pH 2.5) is somewhere between lemon and orange juice.

For a month after radiation and chemo, I continued to fail.

Apparently this is pretty normal for throat cancer patients like myself. You continue to “cook” for several weeks hitting your lowest point long after you thought it would be all be behind you. You reach a point when you are desperate for some sign of improvement … and then you begin to slowly improve.

This point coincided with the advent of spring. It was painstakingly slow, but glorious. As part of this process, cancer patients are often given CT or PET scans to confirm the healing process and to confirm that the treatment was successful. Each of these scans if usually followed by a series of visits to your radiologist, oncologists and/or your surgeon. These appointments are anticipated with both hope and dread. You desperately want reassurance that all is well.

In one recent post-scan visit, I was ushered into an exam room by a perky medical technician. She took my vitals and in the process shared how much it meant to her to see post-treatment patients. Her father had also had throat cancer. I asked how long ago this was and she said 3 years, 9 months and 2 days. I commented on her ability to keep such great track of time and she responded that it was easy since that’s how long he lived post-treatment. His cancer had spread to his lungs and then his brain. I was not sure this was what I needed to hear. With growing enthusiasm, she then showed me the necklace she had with his fingerprint and the pink bead on her bracelet that contained his ashes. Needless to say, she had no idea that part of my visit was to discuss a mysterious new spot on my lung.

In the moments alone after her departure and the arrival of the doctor, I decided to relish the humor in the situation. She had no idea of my situation or that I intended to live a whole lot longer than 3 more years. With even more joy, I realized that recognizing the humor was a sign of recovery … and something I could not have done even a month earlier.

Healthcare workers and many caregivers will tell you that it is the black humor that often saves them from the desperate situations they face each day. Without it, the burden would be too great.

Perhaps this is true also of those going through recovery. You know you are getting better when you can recognize the humor of your own situation: losing your hair, using Coke to open a clogged feeding tube, an ER nurse asking you how to access your chest port for an IV, or discovering a waiting groom gracefully decked out with—dead flowers.

I can find humor in all of these and it is wonderful. My body and my spirit are both in recovery. Thanks be to God.

Share this story with friends! Please, start a conversation with your friends by clicking on the blue-”f” Facebook icons connected to this interview. Or email this interview to a friend using the small envelope-shaped icons.

(Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online magazine covering spirituality, religion, interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)