Getting On with Your Life

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19 April 2010 1,985 views No Comment

Janet looks at her second bout of cancer, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and her stem cell transplant as her second chance at life. It has been nine years and she still considers it a gift.

What one person might view as a blessing, someone else might see as a curse. What they both might agree on, though, are the words, “It is better to give than to receive.” The irony is, of course, you receive far more in return by giving.

Gifts can be physical, material, or spiritual. In some phases of life you may value some over others. Sometimes your physical gifts of health and mobility are taken for granted until you lose them. When you think back to a time in your childhood when you broke a bone and had to be in a cast for a few weeks, you remember how you missed your mobility. You remember the previous days or weeks when you took it for granted that you could walk, run, throw.

During cancer treatment that realization is magnified a hundred-fold for some. In the depths of cancer treatment and recovery, material goods take a back seat to the “gift” of receiving a good lab report or hearing that your chemotherapy has been completed.

Spiritual gifts of prayers by friends or family provide comfort and peace of mind. Your own religious faith may be a gift of reassurance and direction in your struggle to survive. While some gifts are profound, others are simple. My gifts to students in my classes are in the latter category.

One part of my life that has given me joy and one that millions of other men and women can relate to involves the preparing and serving of food. I have always received great satisfaction from the entire process, whether it was cooking for family and friends or taking home-baked treats to neighbors or to work for my colleagues and students.

Having the opportunity to combine two activities I love — teaching and feeding people — sometimes seems too good to be true, and now Writing for Wellness has become Eating for Wellness, too. What began as a gift to my writing students has become a blessing in return.

I was asked to move my writing classes to the daytime in order to accommodate more people who were on campus during business hours. We settled on noon as a starting time, believing that patients usually weren’t scheduled to see doctors between noon and 1:00 p.m. and staff members also would be free to attend during their lunch hours.

But immediately I wondered, “What will I feed them?”

The question was never, “Should I feed them?” because I had already clearly established my philosophy of “breaking the ice by the breaking of bread.”

I witness in my classes that students relax and bond when they eat. It is a fact. Food soothes and disarms. I have also been told I was probably a Jewish mother in a previous life. Clearly, I am not happy when people aren’t eating — and eating.

When Fullerton College had student celebrations on the grassy quadrangle outside my classroom, I would don my rubber gloves and paper hat to join other faculty members dishing out everything from ice cream to tacos as hoards of hungry kids lined up on that 22,000-student campus. I learned from those experiences that the gift of free food and a smile always results in a returned smile and a grateful thank you. What could be better?

Therefore, the idea of “catering” a meal for a dozen or more writing students each week excites me. My lesson plans for writing assignments are tried and true. What works in the evenings works at noon. But, once told about the time change for class meetings, I realized I had to get busy planning my menus. Chicken soup seemed to be a natural at first and it has quickly become a tradition. Unless it’s 90+ degrees in the California shade, it’s the staple. Call it soul food, call it comfort food, or just call it part of our culture, few people ever turn it down. Various salads, sandwiches, fruit, and desserts fill out the menu and fill up the participants.

At first, students often comment, “Oh, you shouldn’t have!” but I can see by their enthusiasm that they are grateful. Later they tease me with comments, “What? No chocolate-chip cookies? You’re slipping!” or “No fresh pineapple? No tip!”

Some patients preparing to undergo a bone marrow or stem cell transplant often arrive wearing surgical masks and armed with instructions to avoid certain foods. They also sit apart from others to prevent any possible contamination. Everyone understands.

But other patients who are encouraged to increase their intake of calories and find themselves without an appetite at home report looking forward to our class lunches.

“I couldn’t eat a thing at home,” Carole Palmquist said wearing her surgical mask and looking thin and pale at the first class after her transplant. After a few minutes, though, she had a half-filled bowl of soup and a few small items on her plate. Before long, she had returned for seconds and joined the group as they all chatted and ate.

I get such satisfaction watching them enjoy their meals as they make conversation and then write about their lives that the schlepping of pitchers, platters, and plates to and from my car seems insignificant.

Food is indeed a gift. Being able to enjoy a meal is something cancer patients look forward to and recognize as a sign of their recovery.

Another “gift” cancer patients receive is that of cancer itself. It sounds grim and impossible to the untouched, but many cancer patients and survivors nod their heads when the subject comes up. They understand completely.

Julie Davey from Writing for Wellness: A Prescription for Healing

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