After receiving a cancer diagnosis, I knew I needed a theme for my recovery

“Five hundred twenty-five thousand, six hundred minutes. How do you measure, measure a year?” – “Seasons of Love” from the musical “Rent”

Christine McCarriston

For me and mine, this year could be measured in health scares, fears, prayers and, incredibly, joy. On September 27, 2022, I was diagnosed with cancer. After a myriad of tests, I learned I had two cancers, they were forming a third which thankfully never materialized, and I would need a temporary colostomy bag to prevent a possible blockage. My diagnosis changed everything, but at the same time it couldn’t change the most important things: the people I love lifting me up, joy in the little things and gratitude.

After receiving the news kindly, but matter-of-factly, I had labs drawn as my husband and sister who accompanied me tried to process the life-changing diagnosis. I am a self-proclaimed wimp when it comes to needles. Not only was this news impossibly hard to digest, we also wondered how this wimp could handle it physically. I haven’t been challenged with health trouble much but here I was, onto labs that would become the norm for me. 

As always when I get blood drawn, I promised to be a good patient but asked not to see the needle. I then spoke my diagnosis out loud for the first time. While taking my blood, Ketia asked me about my family, keeping my mind focused on happier thoughts. When she finished, she said: “You will thank your body for all it has given you to this point, your beautiful daughters and your health up to now, and your body will be strong.” Ketia made me stronger with her words. I became who my family and I call Christine 2.0. This new me was no wimp, proven when my sister had to give me shots at home for 28 days (she’s not a nurse). Christine 2.0 came just in time.

As we exited the hospital that day, I told my husband I needed joy. We aren’t going to tell anyone, I said. There were too many unanswered questions, so many tests scheduled. I couldn’t bear our girls, my parents and my friends worrying and stressing over my diagnosis. I wanted to share in their everyday joys and challenges. That plan is not right for everyone, of course, but it was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. It was very difficult for my husband, but he honored my request with love. 

Always loving a theme, I declared one for this journey: joy, grace and gratitude. To get through the five weeks before my surgery while keeping the news quiet, my sister and I began sharing Today’s Joy daily. Today’s Joy came from simple things: pictures of children we love, funny stories, acts of kindness. I couldn’t have gotten through those weeks without focusing on the happy things in my girls’ lives and my sister sharing daily joy.

The theme of grace was a reminder for me to be graceful to all who were working to help me through this. The gratitude was easy. I don’t take little things for granted. I adopted my mother’s motto ‘Celebrate Everything’ and live it. I learned from practice that when you start the day with gratitude, it’s harder to get negative. That doesn’t mean it’s impossible, it just happens less for me when I start with gratitude. 

We told our girls and my parents a week before my surgery, when I could assure them we were taking action soon to heal me. As they were through every step, my husband and sister told them with me. Add those conversations to the list of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I then made a list of people I wanted to tell personally. Imagine my gratitude when that list surpassed 30 names of people who gave me love, great memories and joy. With their loving arms, they would pull me through this most difficult time. I never wanted to need them all at once but when I did, they showed up big.

My daughters were a constant source of comfort, love and laughs. My support crew was there with everything from cards to blankets, food, wrapped gifts with tags stating when to open them (before first chemo treatment: a Life is Good water bottle) and more. They wouldn’t let me do this alone. 

During the week of my surgery, my work family dressed in the theme of things I like. They know I love a theme. I answered the door one December day to find them on my lawn singing Christmas carols! No, they aren’t talented singers, but it was the most beautiful sound I’ve ever heard. They dressed in brown when I had my colostomy bag reversal surgery which made me laugh so hard in recovery, I had to press my medication button. 

My work family was only getting started. When several of them attended a conference I was supposed to join them at, my friend Christen printed out pictures of me and created a few Flat Christines. As in the children’s book “Flat Stanley,” they brought “me” everywhere they went. Flat Christine crisscrossed the country attending conferences, an NHL hockey game, Disneyland, anywhere they went. They made me feel included for the entire eight months I wasn’t at work that school year. Talk about joy.

My neighbors cooked delicious meals for us. Who knew what great cooks they were?! I could fill this paper with the countless acts of love and support that got me through the day and up the next day. 

After my treatments, surgeries and, miraculously, two clear PET scans, I began to think about how I could possibly thank everyone. I decided I would go on a thank you tour, celebrating each of them in different ways. My family had a different plan. They threw a thank you party for those who gave me strength all those months. On Memorial Day weekend, 110 people came to celebrate my good health and share in the joy together. 

They got me there under the ruse that we were going to see my friend’s son’s band play. Christen drove me and opened the door to reveal my husband and sister and a large crowd smiling behind them. This is for you and your friends; it’s a thank you party for them, they told me. I doubled over in shock. The magnitude of this night was so great and powerful. My husband, sister, daughters and parents planned for months to ensure they didn’t forget anyone who helped me. Christen helped with the work connections. 

I entered the hall overcome with love and happiness. It was the most incredible feeling to be healthier and be with all my favorite people. We all danced when my boss requested my theme song “Unstoppableby Sia. Pictures of moments that brought me joy printed by Shanna decorated each table, on theme of course. My sister penned a poem as thank you cards for the attendees. “You cooked, you baked, you made us fat. You called, you wrote, you bought her hats,” it started. She ended with “You saved her.” She was right. Everyone in that room, along with many doctors and nurses, saved me. My family was floating on air all night. They were able to breathe and thank the people who brought me, brought us, joy through it all. My theme of joy, grace and gratitude was wrapped in my family and friends. Without them I couldn’t have lived my theme of joy with grace through it. Because of them, it wasn’t difficult. 

I smile as I think back on celebrating and dancing with my support group at the party. I hope everyone experiencing difficult times has the love and joy I felt during my toughest time. It’s the best medicine. The party showed me that when you do something kind for someone, you also do it for their family. My family appreciated the support I received as much as I did. It eased their burden to know I was connected to and cared for by so many. It wasn’t all on them. 

I returned to work last month, dancing in my car all the way-to “Unstoppable,” of course. I’ve reflected a lot as I approach this September 27. I am a lucky girl. Grateful, joyful and lucky.

Christine McCarriston
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