Thanksgiving after Cancer

Hester Hill Schnipper, LICSW, OSW-C Program Manager Emeritus, Oncology Social Work

NOVEMBER 21, 2018

Has your Thanksgiving been the same since cancer?

I am writing this piece a few weeks early, but it will be published the day before Thanksgiving, which has long been my favorite holiday. I take time annually to think how best to share my thoughts and gratitude with you. Since my first cancer diagnosis in 1993, all holidays have assumed greater significance and poignancy. Especially in the first years, there was always a bittersweet quality as I wondered how many more Thanksgivings or birthdays I would experience. That acute fear subsides a little with time, but never disappears. With any luck, we are left with an enhanced appreciation of our lives and how best to cherish them. Think of the Mary Oliver quote: How do you want to spend your once wild and precious life? We all think about this.

The first time that I cooked Thanksgiving dinner was in Munich, Germany. I was very young, just married, and had spent days thinking about the meal. My husband invited several single friends to dinner, and when we sat down, John, from Alabama, said: "Where is the rice?" I had never heard of rice being necessary for Thanksgiving, and I learned then the importance of asking guests if there is something unexpected and important for them. As I type this, I am also thinking (and horrified that it took decades to think this) how rude it was of him to say anything. That was the first and only time there has ever been rice on my Thanksgiving table.

This has been an important year of transition and change, and I am especially grateful for traditions that don’t easily change. The beloved people around our table vary a little year to year, but the feelings and the food are the same. I love using my grandmother’s silver epergne for the centerpiece, and I just as much love adding the holiday decorations that my daughters made long ago.

My granddaughters will be asked to begin the familiar "what are you thankful for?" conversation at dinner. The responses--always heartfelt and not surprising--focus on family and friends and the feast before us. I will respond similarly with the additional comment that I never expected to be alive for Thanksgiving 2018, and that I am grateful for the people around the table and all who came before us. There is always a strong presence of an absence as we remember the other faces.

What I will not say but I want to say here is how very, very grateful I am for the work I have been blessed to do and the women whom I have known and loved. This has been an especially difficult few weeks with two deaths, Arlie and Marcie, women whom I knew and admired for years. Both were remarkable wonderful strong women who will be greatly missed. I am remembering them and all of the others whom I have known and loved through the years. I am often asked, and sometimes think, about all of this pain and how do I, as an oncology social worker, bear it. Since leaving BIDMC at the end of June, the intensity is somewhat diluted. Although I happily continue with a half-time private practice and spend many hours each week with people going through cancer, there are other hours that I can put it mostly aside.This balance does affect my mood, but it does not change the feelings. I am just as connected to the people whom I now see in my home office instead of in the middle of Cancer World at the hospital.

Those of you who live, with me, like me, in Cancer World, know this risk and know that there is inevitable grief. I have always, and continue to, believe that the blessing is greater than the pain. Would I have preferred not to know Toni-Lee or Dietlinde or Joan or Arlie or Marcie or Carol or Marilyn or others? Absolutely not. My life has been immeasurably enriched by them and by so many others whom I have known and loved and lost.

Today and always, I am most grateful for all of these brave and wonderful women who have shown us the way forward. I give thanks to them and for them today and always.

Please share your thoughts in the BIDMC Cancer Community.