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How Can I Be Happy Under the Circumstances?


While drafting this article at home on a recent weekend, I received unexpected news of the passing of a co-worker who had succumbed to cancer. Hearing of her passing was sad news, and it was also one of those blunt reminders that living with a significant chronic illness, or fighting a life-threatening disease like cancer, is serious business.

In the world of oncology, life often revolves around chemotherapy drugs, radiation treatments, and unplanned emergency room visits, as well numerous painful and unpleasant procedures often too graphic for discussion in polite company. As I said, serious business. So, when one finds themselves in a world as topsy-turvy as this, how is maintaining any sense of sanity day in and day out possible?

I will grant you that luck and faith play no small parts for many folks, but I believe there are two other qualities that can also play large roles in helping people cope with adversity and become more resilient—a sense of humor and gratitude. I find that these two qualities often go hand in hand, and it seems like I am not the only one to feel that way. Gilda Radner of “Saturday Night Live” fame was quoted during her treatment for ovarian cancer as saying, “How could I be happy under the circumstances? I don’t really know—except that I discovered that I have a strong spirit and a powerful will to survive.”

While I would add the term “grateful” to Gilda’s “happy,” my experiences have been quite similar. Three cancer diagnoses and over 25 years of battling active Crohn’s disease—a chronic autoimmune disease—has taught me that I, too, have a strong spirit and a will to survive. And I would attribute this resilience in no small part to humor and gratitude.

Friends and co-workers will quickly tell you, often punctuated with a roll of their eyes, of my wry sense of humor. But it was not until I faced two intense years filled with chemotherapy and radiation treatments and a host of complications that I discovered how powerful humor and gratitude were in helping me be resilient and maintain a bit of calm during an extremely challenging time in my life.

Men's Health MonthAt the time of my second cancer diagnosis, I had only a faint idea of what lay ahead. I knew there were going to be approximately three months of chemotherapy, a need for extended leave from work, and large amounts of time in hospitals and medical clinics each week. It also occurred to me that contact with my “normal” world was going to be very limited for some time.

Out of convenience, I decided to take up blogging to keep friends, co-workers, and long-distance family apprised of my progress. The cancer and my treatments soon ended up isolating me more than I had expected. Blogging suddenly became a primary connection to my network of friends and family.

My blog started out mostly informative in nature, albeit with a bit of humor thrown in to make for more pleasant reading. Over time, though, I began to realize that it allowed me a means of fighting back against the stresses of treating my cancer and Crohn’s Disease. It gave a voice to my humor and my gratitude, and permitted me an opportunity to bring the whole nasty affair down to size and not let it get the better of me.

Moreover, having to think about what I wanted to write allowed me to be more aware of things I was grateful for, or perhaps thought were humorous. Poking fun at the chaos in my world turned upside down or calling out the amazing care and compassion that I received during my many hospital stays made my life a bit less overwhelming. I may have been ill, but I had not lost my sense of humor or gratitude. In short, I found a way to maintain my resilience in an extremely difficult situation.

And speaking of gratitude, I am pleased to say that it has been almost three years since my cancer treatments concluded. My body has mostly healed from chemotherapy and radiation treatments. My hair, for example, has fully grown back after falling out twice during treatments. In short, I look very much like the “old me.” I am extremely grateful for all of these things, but there are some ongoing health challenges that I will touch upon in a future article.

Researchers are now studying how practices like gratitude, humor, and prayer are linked to better health outcomes. For me, I believe that they contribute to “a strong spirit and a powerful will to survive.”

Cancer may have dragged me into its world but I found many reminders that there were still many things in life to enjoy, and that I need to enjoy them as best I could.

Ken Astrein

Contributor Ken Astrein is a Senior Community Development Specialist with the Seattle Human Services Department. He has focused his 25+ years of work at the city on developing partnerships with human service agencies to build places where communities can gather and families and individuals can receive essential services and support to better succeed in life.

Ken is also an accomplished photographer. He contributed “Honu,” the photo of the Hawaiian sea turtle at top, as a symbol of resilience.

June is national Men’s Health Month. Look for a follow-up article from Mr. Astrein in the months to come.