Coping With Emotions

How to Practice Gratitude: A Guide for Cancer Patients

Keeping a gratitude journal may lead to better physical and emotional health.

As you undergo cancer treatment, gratitude may not be at the top of your mind. But, research has found that practicing gratitude regularly produces many health benefits. With the New Year upon us, this may be just the time to learn how to practice gratitude as a cancer patient.

Benefits of Gratitude

Expressing gratitude leads to more happiness, less depression and anxiety, better sleep, more exercise and fewer symptoms of illness. The National Communication Association concluded that positivity multiplies, yielding even more positive feelings. A study published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience corroborated the finding, determining that people who kept gratitude journals were more altruistic.

Once you start a gratitude practice, you can generate a virtuous circle of uplifting feelings. It may also have physical health benefits. A gratitude practice reduced inflammatory biomarkers and improved a measure of heart risk in people with heart disease, according to research from the American Psychological Association. The heart health benefits would be an added bonus for people undergoing cancer treatment.

7 Ways to Practice Gratitude

We all understand the idea of thankfulness, but it may take time to learn how to practice gratitude every day. You want it to be something you look forward to, not another task added to your schedule. Here are a few ideas to get you started:

  1. Journal. Start with a blank journal or a gratitude journal with prompts. The simplest way to journal is to write three to five things every day that you’re grateful for. Aim for specificity. Rather than just being thankful for your family, write that you’re thankful your husband cooked dinner last night or your grandkids cleaned up after themselves without being asked. You can write daily or weekly or on any schedule that makes it enjoyable for you.
  2. Fill a gratitude jar. Keep slips of paper near the jar; then, during the day, write down things you’re thankful and put the papers in the jar. You could use colorful paper to make the jar look decorative.
  3. Practice mindfulness. Sit quietly for a few moments each day and reflect on what you’re grateful for. You can do a guided practice or simply meditate on your own.
  4. Say “thank you.” Telling people “thank you” directly can make you happier and build stronger relationships, according to researchers at the University of New South Wales. You may not always feel like expressing gratitude every time someone helps you out. But when you do feel up to it, call, email or write a letter to show your appreciation.
  5. Walk. Take a walk to clear your mind, consider what you’re grateful for and find some new things to add to your list. Keep the walk as brisk or as short as you need to; you’ll also reap the benefits of exercising during treatment.
  6. Make a collage. If writing isn’t your speed, take photos of things you’re grateful for. You can include mementos of milestones from your cancer journey as well.
  7. Volunteer. As time and physical ability allow, consider volunteering. Participate in a coat drive, or sell tickets to and attend a charity fundraiser. Collect toiletries or canned goods for a local food bank.

You can try one or several of these ideas and change it up when you lose interest in one. This new year, consider developing a new habit of gratitude.

It's crucial to maintain your mental health during the challenging period of cancer treatment. UVA Cancer Center offers counseling services if you need extra support.

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Patricia Chaney
Patricia Chaney