Giving thanks, even after cancer

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

NOVEMBER 27, 2019

Thanksgiving dinner with family and friends

Thanksgiving has long been my favorite holiday; it involves family and friends and traditions and delicious food and does not require shopping or decorating or other tasks beyond enjoyment of the day.

Each year, I send a few thank-you letters to people for whom I am especially grateful. Over the years, this has included my beloved oncologist, my equally beloved chemo nurse, a number of friends or even acquaintances and family. I haven't yet decided to whom to write this year; the consideration is part of the pleasure as I remember and reflect on the months and events.

Since my first cancer diagnosis in 1993, all holidays have assumed greater significance and poignancy. Especially during the first years, there was an intense bittersweet quality as I wondered how many more Thanksgivings or birthdays I would experience. That acute fear has subsided over time, but it never disappears. With any luck, we are left with an enhanced appreciation of our lives and how best to cherish them. Remember Mary Oliver's words How do you want to spend your one wild and precious life?

The first time that I cooked Thanksgiving dinner was in Munich, Germany. I was very young, just married, and had spent days planning the meal. My then-husband invited several friends to dinner, and, as we sat down, John from Alabama asked: "Where is the rice?" Rice! I had never had rice at Thanksgiving, but this comment taught me to always ask new guests if there is something important to them that must be on the table. That was the only time that there has been rice, but most other dishes are sacrosanct, and I only change the stuffing as I continue to search for the perfect recipe.

The group around my Thanksgiving table changes some year to year, but also includes at least some of the people whom I love most in this world. I love using my grandmother's silver epergne for the centerpiece, and I now enlist my young granddaughters to polish it. As they polish, I talk about her, a strong woman who reportedly scandalized others in her youth by insisting on riding astride her horse, not sidesaddle as ladies were supposed to do. The table is also always decorated with the construction paper decorations that my daughters made years ago, and hopefully will be joined by new ones from the next generation of children in the family.

We always have the What are you thankful for conversation, and it includes the usual responses of family and health and the feast before us. What I think, but don't say, is how very grateful I am for the work that I have been blessed to do all these years, and the wonderful people whom I have known and loved. Each year, there are losses, and I am thinking today about Steve and Paulette and Hanna and Barbara and others whose grace and honesty and spirit have deepened and exalted my life and taught me so much.

All of us who live in Cancer World understand the risk of opening our hearts to each other. We know that some of us will be unlucky and will leave this beautiful world sooner than any of us would choose. I think of them as taking an earlier trip and leaving us the lessons of their planning and itineraries. I have always believed, and continue to believe more and more, that the blessing of these relationships far outweighs the sorrow. Would I have preferred not to know Toni or Dietlinde or Arlie or Marilyn or Carol or Joan or so many others? Absolutely not. They and so many others whom I have loved and lost have immeasurably enriched my life.

Today and on Thanksgiving, I am grateful for all the brave and wonderful men and women who have showed me the way forward. I give thanks to them and for them, today and always.

What are you thankful for this Thanksgiving? Join the BIDMC Cancer Community and share your story.

Above content provided by Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. For advice about your medical care, consult your doctor.