We can’t know why things happen the way they do and we don’t have much choice over the things that do happen to us. We do, however, have a choice in how we respond. This is my story of choosing to respond to bladder cancer with a practice of gratitude learned from the ancient religion of Judaism.
Giving thanks for cancer
Scene One: The messenger arrives
The blood in my urine alarms my partner so much that she encourages me to see my GP. An appointment is made at the hospital to have a look inside my bladder.
I go reluctantly. The bleeding has stopped. Out of sight, out of mind. Statistically, I am at low risk of bladder disease and I don’t trust the medical profession. My biostatistician father had made me aware of the epidemic of iatrogenesis – injury and death caused by doctors. My mother died a few years earlier of a diagnostic procedure that caused her lungs to collapse. And a friend of mine spent months in a coma in the same hospital I’ve been referred to. A similar diagnostic procedure to the one I’m offered caused her sepsis. I dig my heels in and say no.
Having got me to the hospital, my partner is not going to let me get away without a look inside. She and the consultant argue that it’s worth having a look, just to reassure ourselves that there’s nothing to worry about. When I finally consent after a good fight, I am immediately whisked onto the examining table.
However, the view is not reassuring. There on the screen for all to see, is a sea anenome-like tumour with white calcified bits and black blood clots, sitting on a stalk rising from the smooth bladder wall. My legs start shaking from the shock. When I recover from the sight, I write this poem.
Later tests done under general anaesthesia confirm that it is bladder cancer. When three tumours recur a few months later, another operation is scheduled, this time by epidural.
Scene two: The choice point
I have a choice. I can decide to do nothing. Maybe the tumours will obligingly disappear or not progress to more advanced stages of cancer. With this decision, I won’t have to change my attitude towards the medical profession.
Or I can decide to have the surgery. I can accept that the tumours are there and have come back in triplicate. To make this decision, I will have to change my attitude.
Scene three: The decision to practice gratitude
I decide to change my attitude and have the surgery, not reluctantly or with fear but with gratitude. I choose to see that this too is for the good. I decide to believe that, for reasons I cannot fathom and find hard to endorse, the bladder cancer is part of the divine plan for my life. I consciously choose to give thanks. I set my intention to remain awake throughout the unfamiliar and frightening experience and to connect with whoever I encounter in a spirit of love.
Scene four: Waiting for surgery
I am standing in a cubicle by a corridor flowing with a constant stream of colourfully clad beings. Every few minutes, one of these beings emerges out of the stream to bless me with information, questions, and measurements of my body’s signs.
I chant out loud in Hebrew: ‘God, grace us, bless us: may Your light shine among us.‘
I find the flame in my one-point, bring it up to the heavens, weave a diamond of light around me down to the centre of the earth, pull that light up to my one-point, fill the diamond with the light and bring it back to my one-point.
Scene five: The operating theatre
The operating theatre is packed with masked beings and mysterious but important-looking medical equipment. It is a space of calm, purposeful, friendly activity. Into my back, an injection is given to anaesthetise me from the waist down.
Under my breath, I chant: ‘Into Your hand I entrust my spirit, when I sleep and when I awaken. When spirit is with my body, God is with me, I will not fear.‘
During the procedure, I can see what they are doing on a screen but it’s as if done to someone else’s body. My legs and feet are no longer part of me. I recognise the beings as angels and I am one of them.
I chant out loud throughout. ‘I am always with You. Though my heart is troubled and I’m filled with dread, I turn to face your mystery. Though I’ve been lost inside my head, I open to eternity.’
Scene six: The recovery room
I am lifted onto a trolley and moved to the recovery room, still chanting. I begin to feel faint and say I can’t breathe. ‘You are breathing,’ they laugh. ‘We can hear you singing. Keep singing.’
I breathe and chant: ‘all love, all clarity, all power.‘
The angel in the chartreuse outfit with the beautifully patterned cap (who assures me he’s a consultant but looks like he’s not long out of his teens), breezes in and says, ‘there’s nothing to worry about. All went well.’ My blood pressure climbs back up and my spirit soars into a space of all love, all clarity, all power.
Scene seven: The result
Two weeks later, I receive the biopsy result. The tumours that had triggered the urgent operation and had been so alarmingly visible two weeks previously have gone. The surgeons had not removed them. They hadn’t even found any. They had obligingly disappeared.
Not only did I have a good experience but a miraculous outcome.
Gratitude – the essence of Judaism
I learned about gratitude from Judaism. Gratitude has been a constant and enduring theme since Judaism originated nearly 4,000 years ago. The Torah, the Talmud and all the sacred texts of Judaism are full of instructions and stories of the importance of gratitude. In the prayer book, there are more prayers of gratitude and appreciation than of petition. I learned the Hebrew chants from Rabbi Shefa Gold, a teacher in a modern branch of Judaism.
These are three lessons about gratitude that I’ve learned from Judaism:
1. Gratitude for everything
In Judaism, there’s a blessing for everything, not just for rituals and festivals but for everyday activities – for the food you’re about to eat, for the food you’ve just eaten, for washing your hands, for going to the toilet, for seeing a rainbow, etc.
Each morning as soon as you wake up, you’re meant to say the Morning Blessings. These are a set of prayers of thanksgiving for life itself – for eyes to see, for clothes to wear, for the joy of freedom, for providing everything we need, for the strength to rise, for the blessing of sleep and the privilege to wake to a new day, among others.
2. Gratitude makes the moment sacred
The practice of bringing a thanksgiving offering (called a Korban Todah) is described in the Book of Leviticus. Itis not an obligatory commandment but a voluntary, heartfelt gesture. Korban Todah is Hebrew for drawing near with thanks. By giving thanks, you draw near and connect to God.
In Biblical times, the offering was in the form of an animal sacrifice which was burnt and eaten during the day it was brought. It couldn’t be carried over to the next day. As Judaism developed over the centuries, prayers replaced animal sacrifices as the way to express gratitude.
The message I take from the Korban Todah is:
- the decision to give thanks arises from within. It is a choice to make from the heart.
- by giving thanks, I am making a sacrifice. In other words, I am making the moment sacred and feeling connected with the All-That-Is.
- every day brings new opportunities for appreciation.
3. Gratitude to the Something More – a lesson in humility
Moses led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt to spend 40 years in the desert. On their way to the promised land, Moses reminds the people to give thanks to God when they eventually arrive. He says, “When you have eaten your fill and have built fine houses and live in them .. do not exalt yourself, forgetting the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery … Do not say to yourself, ‘My power and the might of my own hand have gained me this wealth.’”
Practicing gratitude gives me the sense that I am connected to Something More and that I am co-creating my life with that Something More. I am comforted by the awareness that I am not the sole creator of my life, alone with the burden of responsibility for making everything work out and the burden of guilt and fear for those things that don’t work out. It is a relief and a lesson in humility.
I can thank the medical team for playing their part in diagnosing and treating my bladder cancer. I am especially grateful to my partner for her support. I can take pride in my part in deciding to accept their help and in making it a positive experience. But ultimately, we are all playing our parts in a bigger picture, orchestrated by the Something More, for the highest good of all of the players. This is what I am grateful for.
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