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?

In his newest book, ‘The Art of Healing,’ Dr. Bernie Siegel says: ‘Laugh out loud! It’s healthy!’

Heather Jose photo.

Heather Jose

WELCOME Dr. Bernie Siegel!

He’s the best-selling author, teacher and retired pediatric surgeon who has been helping us all rethink—and expand—the healing process for three decades. I’m especially thankful to Dr. Siegel for encouraging readers to get my memoir, Every Day We Are Killing Cancer. One of his major themes is the importance of doing everything we can to raise our spirits—and keep ourselves focused on happiness. That’s very much my message, too, in my writing and in my own workshops, Go Beyond Treatment. I know you’re going to enjoy this brief excerpt from Bernie’s new chapter called simply: Laugh Out Loud



Click the cover to visit the book's Amazon page.

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

(From his new book, The Art of Healing: Uncovering Your Inner Wisdom and Potential for Self-Healing)

LAUGHTER may be one of the purest of the healing arts. What I am telling you is that laughter is one of the best therapeutic activities Mother Nature provides us with, and it doesn’t cost a cent. True laughter is an outburst of expression of breath that involves the vocal cords and comes from deep in the belly. It’s caused by an irresistible urge to express surprise, mirth, joy and delight. Laughter stimulates the release of endorphins. These chemicals flood the body with a feel-good sensation that reaches every cell, delivering a message that says: Life is worth living, so do everything you can to survive.

Unlike the days when I was training as a physician, today we have studies documenting that cancer patients who laughed or practiced induced laughter several times a day lived longer than a control group who did not. Even so, in medical school doctors still aren’t taught the value of laughter as therapy. I certainly wasn’t in medical school; my patients were my teachers. They, the natives, taught me, the tourist.

I recall one day walking into the room of a patient, a lovely woman who I cared about, and she was dealing with a serious illness and several associated complications. I approached her room thinking about how I was going to help her and worrying about her treatment. When I entered her room she asked, “What’s wrong?”

“Why are you asking me that?” I responded.

“Your face and forehead are all wrinkled.”

“I am thinking about how to help you.”

“Think in the hallway, then,” she said. “I need you to smile when  you come in here.” She was right. I needed an attitude adjustment to be a better physician for her, and it was an adjustment I happily made. The best doctors learn from the critiques and coaching supplied by their patients, nurses and families.  I learned from all of these people that when I lightened up, encouraged laughter in others, and practiced it myself, everybody benefited.

Scientists have studied the effects of laughter on the body and identified a number of psychological benefits. Laughter increases activity in the immune system, giving “good” killer cells a boost, especially in their ability to target viruses, some tumors, and cancer cells. Measurements of immune system components show a lingering beneficial effect from laughter that lasts into the next day. Laughter appears to fight infection and abrasion or chemical insults to the upper tract of the respiratory system. Laughter is a natural muscle-relaxant; at the same time, it provides a good cardiac and diaphragm workout, improving the body’s capacity to use oxygen. This makes it an ideal activity for those whose ability to exercise is limited. Laughter also improves mood and decreases patients’ perception or awareness of pain. As in the case of appropriate exercise, there are no negative side effects to laughter.

So I recommend that you practice the expression of giggles and guffaws; become an artist, and fill your palette with laughter. Remember it’s not healthy to be serious and normal. Trying to be normal is only for those who feel inadequate. So be an infectious carrier. Spread joy and healing, and keep the artist within you alive.


OUR IN-DEPTH INTERVIEW WITH DR. BERNIE SIEGEL: Read The Spirit Editor David Crumm talks at length with medical pioneer Dr. Bernie Siegel about his life’s work, his new book—and the importance of encouraging good humor.

OUR RESIDENT EXPERT IS RABBI BOB ALPER: Bob is the only active rabbi in the U.S. who also is a full-time standup comic. Millions enjoy his routines on satellite radio as well. His new book is Thanks. I Needed That. (Perfect for holiday gift giving in November and December!)

CAREGIVING EXPERT & AUTHOR BENJAMIN PRATT: Ben writes an entire chapter on the importance of laughter in his book A Guide for Caregivers. More recently, Benjamin wrote a column on Interactive Laughter.

COMEDIAN & INSPIRATIONAL AUTHOR SUSAN SPARKS: ReadTheSpirit interviewed Susan on her amazing career in ministry and humor, especially her book Laughing Your Way to Grace.


CATHOLIC WRITER JAMES MARTIN SJ: ReadTheSpirit’s David Crumm also interviewed the famous Catholic journalist Father James Martin about his book on “holy humor,” Between Heaven and Mirth.

Cindy LaFerle: When do we listen to our own hearts?

Heather Jose photo.

Heather Jose

WELCOME Cindy LaFerle, a popular author, columnist and longtime friend of our online magazine. She also is a veteran caregiver and writes eloquently about the challenge so many of us suddenly face—between caring for others … and ourselves. At the end of this column, I invite you to learn more about Cindy’s work.

Also, thanks to all the readers who are passing along our recent columns on Tips for Caregivers. We always look forward to your comments, emails and suggestions.

HERE IS Cindy’s column, which she calls …

Broken-Heart Signals


Long before the weird heart palpitations started, my first warning was a never-ending series of medical appointments on my day planner.

Not one of those appointments was for me.

Three years ago, I’d purchased a new day planner to keep track of my widowed mother’s care management. While transferring dates and phone numbers from my previous planner, I noticed I’d driven Mom to nearly 50 medical appointments in less than a year—yet I’d neglected to schedule an annual physical for myself.

Unable to drive due to her progressing vascular dementia, Mom lived alone in her condo then, relying solely on me to help maintain her “independence.” Between regular trips to Mom’s cardiologist, urologist, audiologist, primary care physician, pacemaker clinic, and various surgeons, I was lucky if I could book a free morning to get my teeth cleaned.

Friends told me I was looking tired, but I ignored them (and thought they were being cruel). Months of worry and caregiving were starting to take their toll—yet I was too frantic to notice.

The beat goes on and on

Cindy LaFerle created this multi-media piece, called “Cycles of the Muse.” It is featured in "The Rust Belt Almanac," a new anthology of art, fiction, and poetry about growth, change and loss in America’s Rust Belt. (Click this image to visit the Amazon page for the book.)

Cindy LaFerle created this multi-media piece, called “Cycles of the Muse.” It is featured in “The Rust Rising Belt Almanac,” a new anthology of art, fiction, and poetry about growth, change and loss in America’s Rust Belt. (Click this image to visit the Amazon page for the book.)

Since March of this year, Mom has fallen twice, first fracturing her back and later shattering her ankle. (By this time, we’d finally made the difficult decision to move her, totally against her wishes, to a skilled nursing care facility.) These episodes required three extended hospital stays and two surgeries—plus weeks of physical therapy.

Meanwhile, I endured two minor surgeries of my own, but ended up spending my recovery time overseeing my mother’s care at the hospital. I would try to care for myself later, I promised.

Visiting Mom at the hospital, I could feel my blood pressure rising every time she insisted she was “perfectly capable” of caring for herself at home. Deluded by the insidious fog of dementia, she refused to believe she’d broken her ankle and was unable to walk—even when we pointed to the cast on her leg.

Over and over, she’d ask: “Why are you keeping me here, there is nothing wrong with me?”
“Why can’t I go home now?”
“When are you taking me home?”

By August, I’d developed some alarming new symptoms of my very own—including heart palpitations—and a wretched case of insomnia. My heart would pound without any exertion to prompt it—even while I was relaxing in front of the TV.

It scared the hell out of me, unpredictably, several times a day. I was terrified enough to finally schedule an appointment with my family doctor, who ordered several tests. As the doctor explained it, I’d been living on adrenaline fumes after functioning on “high alert” for the past couple of years.

Taking versus giving

More than one-third of caregivers who provide continuing care for a spouse or another family member are doing so “while suffering poor health themselves,” notes a study cited by the Family Caregiver Alliance. Not surprisingly, middle-aged and older female caregivers are more susceptible to heart disease, hypertension, and depression than those with no caregiving duties. The stats are sobering, so I won’t go on here.

Click the cover to visit the book's Amazon page.

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

“In many midlife women, heart palpitations are primarily caused by increasing heart energy—influenced by partnership, passion, anger, and forgiveness issues—trying to become embodied in a woman’s life,” explains Christiane Northrup, M.D., in a column she wrote for her website. She’s best known as the author of The Wisdom of Menopause: Creating Physical and Emotional Health During the Change.

In her online column, she writes: “My experience has been that our bodies speak to us only when we can’t seem to ‘hear’ them any other way. When issues of love, issues of the soul, or issues of a woman’s unmet passions cry out for attention, they often take the form of heart palpitations. If we are willing to be open to their meaning, we will be giving our hearts a chance to be heard.”

Dr. Northrup challenges women to ask what could be weighing heavily on our hearts—including our key relationships. Are friends and loved ones “investing” as much in our emotional bank as we’re investing in theirs? If not, why do we hang on to unbalanced alliances?

Of course, some relationships—family, especially—are not dispensable. I have no choice but to show up for my mother and to manage all aspects of her life, from finances to healthcare. But when others make silly or unrealistic demands on my time—or ignore my emotional needs—I have every right to question those relationships. My heart depends on it.

Reading Dr. Northrup’s advice, I also realized I’d been putting everyone else’s needs ahead my own for the past two decades. Starting in early motherhood, I’d completely redesigned my career goals around the schedules of my husband and son. As soon as my son left for college, my widowed mother’s health began failing, throwing me unexpectedly into the role of full-time caregiver again.

Hearing the heart sounds

Once we “listen” to what our hearts are telling us, Dr. Northrup says, our symptoms begin to fade—though it’s always best to have them checked by a physician, as I did.

Even though Mom has been in a nursing home for several months, I have to remind myself that I needn’t worry about her 24/7. Professional caregivers are being paid to tend to her needs.

I’ve also learned that it’s best to avoid visiting her when I’m feeling especially depressed or exhausted. Mom still begs me to take her “home”—which inevitably leads to more heartbreak and frustration for both of us. The social worker at the nursing home has suggested “redirecting” our conversations to focus on happier memories—which rarely works with anxious dementia patients, but I keep trying.

Though it might seem otherwise, this post isn’t a pity party. I fully accept the privilege of being part of a family—which often includes caring for a chronically ill (or incredibly difficult) elderly parent. I hope it serves as a warning for anyone fulfilling the role of caregiver while navigating her own middle years—years that inevitably present health challenges and other turning points that she might ignore at her peril.

It’s time to listen up.

Listen to your heart.

Cindy LaFerle

Cindy LaFerle


This column was republished, with permission, from Cindy’s home website: Cindy LaFerle’s Home Office. Cindy is an award-winning columnist, journalist and author. Her work appears in many book-length anthologies, including The Rust Belt Rising Almanac. Her own signature collection is Writing Home: Collected Essays and Newspaper Columns.

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.

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.)

Summer is perfect for spotting unforgettable Sunset Moments

Heather Jose photo.

Heather Jose

Sunset Moments.
Each one unique.
You either stop and immerse yourself in the moment—or you miss it forever.

Regular readers of this column know that this is one of my personal passions: Whatever else you think matters in your stressed-out life, you must take time for Sunset Moments. Today, I’m so pleased to see that my colleague—columnist and author Rodney Curtis—is celebrating the same spiritual lesson with his family. And his camera! (Rodney’s a terrific photographer, so please check out his gallery of Sunset Moments.)

The truth is: If we’ve got eyes and we are willing to free up the time—anyone can experience these dazzling Technicolor scenes. Let me tell you the story behind my own photo of a Sunset Moment (accompanying this column, below).


Heather Jose sunset moment in northern MichiganOne of my favorite things about living in Michigan is the length of warm summer days, when we are able to enjoy this state’s countless rivers and lakes.

The sun seems to take forever to set. It feels as though the extended light adds extra time to my life. More often than not, I use that extra time to enjoy the things that often get pushed aside throughout the rest of the year.

What do you like to do in these extra hours?
What’s on your list of summer favorites?

My list starts like this:
Fishing with my husband
Getting ice cream with my family
Walking with a friend
Sipping a drink on the deck

Some nights, these pleasures only take minutes, but I love it when these experiences stretch from minutes into hours. It is during this time that we wander away from the regular conversation of life and find ourselves dreaming and opening up.

When I was sick for so long, it was these moments in life that I longed to experience far into the future. While I hoped to be a part of life’s momentous occasions in the years ahead—it was these little things that I realized mattered even more.

It was a life lesson that I am glad I learned early in life.

Time is fleeting, as we all know, and as much as we may want things to stay the same, they never do. But Sunset Moments keep coming, if we stop and look for them. I hope you enjoy an amazing sunset this week and that it reminds you of the opportunity to make the most of each day.

Happy Fourth of July!

If you have a moment, please, share this column with a friend by clicking the blue-“f” Facebook icon or the little envelope-shaped email icon. Or, add a comment below with a few words about a Sunset Moment that lifted your spirits in a special way.

What fills your bucket? It’s a very smart question to ask.

Heather Jose photo.

Heather Jose

Caregiving can be a tough job with little reward. Often caregivers are the men and women who shoulder the tedious tasks: laundry, bill paying, prescription renewal and so many other daily tasks big and small. If tasks aren’t done—we hear about it! But when we do our jobs, week after week, these tasks are never mentioned.

Caregiving doesn’t always come with rewards.

My son brought home his school’s end-of-the year newsletter the other day and it said that 2013-2014 will be a bucket-filling year. Since I am friends with the principal I mentioned that to her when I saw her.

“Ahh, we are filling buckets again next year, I see” I said.

Cover How Full Is Your Bucket Tom Rath Donald Clifton

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

“Yes,” she replied, “you can never have too many full buckets.”

This concept comes from How Full Is Your Bucket?—a book by Tom Rath and Donald O. Clifton Ph.D. Rath also has a children’s edition now, called How Full Is Your Bucket? For Kids.

I don’t own a copy of the kids’ edition at this point, but I expect I’ll be reading it in preparation for the upcoming school year.

What’s the value of asking:
How Full Is Your Bucket?

Get copies of these books to explore the entire concept, but here’s the basic idea:

Clifton (coauthor of Now, Discover Your Strengths) and Rath suggest that we all have a bucket within us that needs to be filled with positive experiences, such as recognition or praise. Interactions throughout the day, week, year, all influence the fullness of our bucket, in other words how positive our outlook may be at the moment. When we’re negative toward others, we remove from their buckets and diminish their positive outlook. When we treat others in a positive manner, we fill not only their buckets but ours as well. The authors illustrate how this principle works in many relationships from business to marriage.

Cover How Full Is Your Bucket for Kids by Tom Rath

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

My friend uses this idea to promote a more positive environment within her school and to help the kids think about how their comments and actions affect one another.

I can tell you: This works! I will never forget the time that my son, who was 7 at the time, told me that I just emptied his bucket. This has become an affective way of communicating how he perceives a situation.

Bucket Filling and Caregiving

Caregiving isn’t necessarily a bucket-filling job, but there are things we can do, even for ourselves, that can affect the state of our buckets.

A quiet cup of coffee in the morning with my favorite creamer fills my bucket, as does a minute or two spent petting one of the pets that lives with me. (Ok, my cat just climbed up and interrupted my writing as soon as I wrote that sentence.)

Our buckets can be filled through interactions with others—but also, I believe, from within.

Do you have things that fill your bucket as a caregiver?

Would you share them this week? Add a comment below.

And, would you share this column with a friend? Click the blue-“f” Facebook buttons or the envelope-shaped email buttons and add a little bit to your friend’s bucket right now.