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Transforming Difficulty into Joy

joyA Quick Note: My free cancer quick-start guide is days away from being released! It’s turned into a much bigger project than I anticipated, and I’m SO happy with how it’s coming along. This is one of the most important things I’ve created and I’m so excited to share it with the world.

I’m also very appreciative of the many readers who made suggestions and volunteered their time to proofread and do the graphic design. Stay tuned because you will be hearing from me again in the next few days with the final product!


After moving back to my parents’ house in June, it felt like I slowly came back to life.

For months I had struggled through a terribly stressful experience (that included breaking up with my boyfriend of five years and becoming homeless after my heartless landlord kicked me out of her house, stalked me, hired private investigators to spy on me, stole my security deposit, and then threatened to sue me for more). Now, in the safe and nurturing environment of my childhood home, it felt, finally, like I was alive again.

Over the following weeks I developed a routine that I loved. I would wake up in the morning and make two hard-boiled eggs. While the eggs were cooking, I’d boil water for green tea and microwave a bowl of steel-cut oatmeal. I’d make myself a smoothie or pour a glass of juice. I’d sit down and enjoy my breakfast more than I can imagine anyone has enjoyed anything in their entire life.

After living out of a carry-on-sized suitcase for six weeks… let’s just say being in a settled-enough space to create a routine felt like a vast improvement.

If my mom or dad were home, I’d turn to them, throw my hands up in the air, and say, “This is the best breakfast I’ve ever had in my life! I’m so happy!

I said it over and over, but after seeing me curled up in a ball on the couch for most of the past six months, I don’t think they got tired of hearing it.

Afternoons were for lounging. Maybe I’d sit in my parents’ garden with a book or my computer. It would be quiet, but I felt I could hear all those little sounds—the buzzing of bees as they flew around the rosemary bush, the crunching of dry grass as deer picked the ground for food, the constant “whoosh” of the freeway a few miles away. I felt so joyous and appreciative for where I was and everything I had. I don’t think I had felt so happy in my entire life.

You might not have guessed that at that moment I was in the middle of battling an aggressive form of lymphoma, and was undergoing one of the more arduous chemotherapy regimens that exists.

I could no longer work, could no longer drive, could no longer take care of many basic needs. I looked in the mirror and saw a bald, atrophied, chubby-faced version of myself that was a far cry from the Elana I used to see. So how could I be so happy when so much I loved about my life, so much that identified me, had been taken away?

I was so happy because I had gained far more than I had lost.

I was happy because a month before, I couldn’t eat because either my mouth was covered in sores, making eating excruciatingly painful, or I was nauseated to the point where I’d throw up anything I’d eat. Meal times were a cruel joke; I would be starving, and want nothing more than to stuff my face with a hamburger, but instead would have to eat unflavored popcorn, waiting 15 seconds before putting each kernel in my mouth to make sure I wasn’t going to throw up.

Or, I’d have to perform an elaborate ritual to numb my mouth before eating something soft, bland, and unsatisfying (first, take two oxycontin and wait an hour; then, swish numbing mouthwash for at least a minute to numb entire mouth—also taking away my ability to taste; then, apply numbing liquid to each individual sore; finally, eat meal, but make sure to finish within ten minutes before everything wears off).

Now, I could eat with gusto! I could taste my food!

One day I went out to lunch with my mom and birth mom at a nice outdoor cafe. I was in such anticipation of the meal that I found the menu online and picked out my meal ahead of time. I savored every bite; I savored the conversation. I ordered a glass of chardonnay even though it was the middle of the day (why the hell not?). I ordered the biggest dessert on the menu even though I had ordered an appetizer, too (why the hell not?).

I was happy because whereas before I felt crippled by chronic body pain, my pain was now well-managed with medications and alleviated as I healed in this better environment. It no longer hurt to stand up, to walk, to do basic tasks around the house.

I could get my own glass of water. I could make my own breakfast. I didn’t wake up hurting so bad I almost couldn’t breathe, grasping for my pain medications by the side of the bed (because their effects had, unfortunately, worn off at some point in the middle of the night).

I was happy because I could now focus enough to read a good book (or a trashy magazine), I could get off the couch and go for walks in the near-perfect Bay Area weather, I could go to the bathroom without feeling like my butt was being stabbed with a kitchen knife (I wish I could say mucositis just affects the mouth… but sorry, it doesn’t). How could I not feel like my life was wonderful? How could I not feel blessed?

Yes, cancer has caused me pain. But—more notable than the pain is the appreciation for life my illness has given me. There’s nothing like the threat of having your life taken away to make you appreciate the small joys all around you.

 Why We Suffer

We suffer not because there is no joy in our life; we suffer because there is joy all around us that we fail to notice.

We miss the joy of eating because we’re distracted and don’t pay attention to our food (or, even worse, we criticize our bodies and deny ourselves delicious and fulfilling food, and associate eating with guilt).

We miss the joy of spending time with friends because our minds are a million miles away worrying about some problem at work.

We miss the joy of solitude and quiet because we’re used to filling our attention with constant streams of information and entertainment, to the point that slowing down causes discomfort and boredom.

It’s an unfortunate reality that most people don’t realize how good they have it until something is taken away. It took getting cancer for me to realize how great my life actually is.

While I certainly don’t recommend waiting for something horrible to happen before you start appreciating your life, a difficult experience can be an opportunity to wake up to life, in the same way being slapped across the face or having a bucket of ice water thrown on you wakes you up to life.

Accepting the Ups and Downs of an Authentic Life

If you are human (and, as a blog reader, I assume you are), your life with be filled with highs as well as lows. There’s no faster path to disappointment than to try to grasp onto pleasure as if you could string one happy moment after another for the rest of your life and never feel any pain in between.

A month or two after I came back to life, I restarted the hardest round of my chemo course and descended back into a world of physical discomfort. It all came back—the mouth sores, the nausea, the inability to enjoy food, the chronic pain. I had to take doses of pain meds high enough to kill a small animal just to get through my day. My mom was relegated back to the job of getting me my glasses of water and preparing my food (thanks mom).

But even though I was in pain, I didn’t feel like I was suffering (although I might have made my parents suffer a little bit with my pain-induced irritability).

I knew the pain was temporary. I knew soon I would be done with that round of chemo and would once again be able to experience the joy of eating, of good company, of, you know… just being.

Today marks the last day of my hardest round of chemo. I can already feel the pain starting to lift, food starting to taste better, life starting to feel more joyous.


Photo by Dmitry




  1. You are a pearl of a girl and I am so glad you are getting through this and can see the other end of the deep tunnel you were forced to crawl through. All of us readers just worried and prayed but we knew you would return even better and wiser. I am just sorry you had to get this cancer at all. Life is like that, series of senseless things that just happen. Important thing is, you have emerged back into life! Congratulations! Much love, light and happiness to shine on you here on out! Xoxo Shelley Dodt

  2. Elana,
    You have had a very tough experience fighting cancer, sadly there is never an easy path to waking up to life. I really admire how you have turned this to a positive experience for you and those around you. That is the essence of human spirit.
    Keep shinning!

  3. So sorry to hear about your health. I wish you the very best. Keep on doing what you LOVE!

  4. So happy for you, Elana! That last line was the best. I wish you more days of pain-free, simple and well-deserved joy.

  5. Dear Elana,
    I am so happy for you, so happy that you are getting out of that horrible hole in which cancer threw you! I am so happy that you are coming back to life! And I admire you so much for being able to transform this absolutely devastating and awful ordeal into something positive, writing this cancer guide to help other people. This is pure generosity. After all those disappointments and sufferings you went through, I can understand how you can now enjoy every single aspects of life, even the smallest ones. You are a true diamond Elana, an incredible person, so rich and generous and courageous. You deserve now to return back to health, to be well and to have only beauty, love, harmony and peace all around you in your life.
    Love from Switzerland

  6. Yes! I am in the hospital at Sloan Kettering recovering from my second thoracotomy right now and despite the pain I have a joy in my heart that is brighter and deeper than any I have known. There is an alchemy of turning pain and grief into joy and it is stoked by gratitude for my current relative health and by all of intention of Life that is so present in your blog.

  7. Congrats on your last day of chemo! I’ve been following your blog but haven’t commented till now – thank you so much for this post and this poignant reminder to enjoy all of what life has to offer. ALL of it, even when hard and scary. Soldier on!

  8. After every storm the sun shall shine and it looks like it is again shining on you ( :

  9. Yale Jones says:

    I am a 72 year old man in Taos, NM and an avid reader of your wonderful blog. You are a brilliant writer and a beautiful and courageous woman. Thank you for sharing your journey so honestly and articulately. You help and inspire many people.

  10. Absolutely Spot on in so many ways! Congratulations on finishing your current chemo regimen and I’m excited to see your finished cancer guide!

    I finished my chemo in May and that slow coming-back-to-life feeling is indeed joyous. I love to cook and it’s SUCH a pleasure to have the energy to make a batch of gluten-free bagels or whip up a Thai entrée without having to crash for the rest of the day or wonder if I can even finish the task at hand.

    Even though I pretty much lost my job (It was cut to a part time job when it was split between two people during my medical leave) I’m actually starting to see it as a beautiful opportunity to figure out how I’m going to live the rest of my life doing what I love – what I’m passionate about.

    Appreciation for life – Yes! It took cancer for me to wake up and oddly enough, I have cancer to thank for that.

  11. I remember the ulcers in my mouth – like craters. I had to get prescription ointment for them they got so bad. Eating was hellish and because my tongue likes to explore ulcers it was like being zapped with electricity every few seconds… But I did learn to appreciate simple things, like being able to taste something or just sitting in the back yard doing nothing more than looking at the daisies and the sky. It brought me back to basics, sometimes living moment to moment. I also discovered PG Wodehouse’s books, which added some silliness to my days (if the absurdities of chemo weren’t silly enough!).

  12. Melanie from northern Arizona says:

    The uplifting San Francisco vibe (I lived there for 13 years), healthy nutrition, and parental love are magical healers. I’m so glad you’re almost feeling like yourself again–emotionally, at least. Thank you for reminding us all to be grateful for life’s little pleasures. You’re such a vibrant, engaging writer. Once you’re back to your physician career, I bet you continue writing as a secondary passion. I also wouldn’t be surprised if we saw you on stage in a few years, giving an inspirational TED Talk! You’re on your way to greatness, Elana!

  13. Dawna Lee Heising says:

    I am so happy to hear that your hardest round of chemotherapy is over and that you are feeling safe and loved. My friends and I are following your wonderful blog. We are so inspired by your courage, strength and positive attitude.

  14. I’m at my parents/childhood home too this summer and live off my suitcase. I always find coming back to my hometown a rejuvenation, rest point, as it seems to be for you. So glad you can find the joys!

  15. God bless you, joyous girl! I’m so happy for you and so glad you are feeling the joy. About a year ago, mine was a BLT and locally grown corn on the cob. Today, I had a performance review with my soon to be former boss who tortured me while I was going through treatment. I also had a conversation with my company’s head of benefits to share my ideas on how they can help employees get through a life threatening illness better. One was yet another painful reminder that people can really let you down when you need them most, and one made me feel great that perhaps someone else will benefit from my experience. I’m choosing to focus on the joy of helping others.

  16. Thanks Elana. Loved the post. So happy for you. Waking up to life just how it is really is the best gift. I know what you mean and shared a similar experience. I feel like being faced with something so scary taught me how I really want to live, I am grateful for

    • Oops, pressed the button to quickly. Grateful for everything. The ups, the downs, etc… All of it feels like the stuff that makes life magical. Really happy for you!

  17. renee lakner says:

    Hi there lovely lady! I have been lurking on your website for months and months. I probably got your first post and I’ve continued to keep up with you but have never commented. Today I feel compelled to add my thoughts. I am a Stage IV metastatic breast cancer patient since 2003. Your blog post today hits it on the spot!! I ENJOY and am THANKFUL for every single moment I can grab. I was fortunate to learn this lesson early in my diagnosis. My eyes have been opened to the most trivial routines of everyday life and I am digging it! I’m blessed that I can grasp these moments and treasure them. I have felt your pain, frustration and now your joy in the everyday. Bless you and thank for expressing my thoughts so beautifully. My love to you.

  18. Jennifer says:

    Thank you so much, Elana. This is beautiful. So much here to reflect on. I especially like this: “We suffer not because there is no joy in our life; we suffer because there is joy all around us that we fail to notice.” So very true.

  19. Melanie from northern Arizona says:

    I can’t wait to read your new guide. I love the title! Since you’re lucky to be living in San Francisco, you have to try one of the best vegetarian restaurants in the states, or even the world. When I lived there I used to eat there often–Greens Restaurant. It’s located at Fort Mason on the waterfront on the east side of the city near the old Safeway grocery store. They have a Farmers’ Market there on Sundays, too. Treat yourself, you’ll love it. Take care, Elana.

  20. Yes, Yes, Yes!!

  21. This one really got me. Nice post. I love the enjoyment of simple rituals. I think the book “wherever you go there you are” has a quote about thoreau hanging out in a doorway and just watching the world and having a lot of fun.

    A thing i just wrote about mindful eating that relates: http://danscreativeoutlet.wordpress.com/2014/08/14/you-wasted-life-why-wouldnt-you-waste-death/

  22. Sending positive and healing affirmations your way. You are an inspiration and I have learned so much from you. Thank you!!

  23. This is such a beautiful and touching essay. Your blog posts are always meaningful, and this one hits home yet again. “We suffer not because there is no joy in our life; we suffer because there is joy all around us that we fail to notice.” Fantastic way to say it, thank you.


  1. […] To read the rest of the beautiful piece (and you should!!), click HERE! […]

  2. […] Transforming Difficulty into Joy from Zen Psychiatry, in which Elana says, “We suffer not because there is no joy in our life; […]

  3. […] The little guide we all need, whatever our challenges might be:  Transforming Difficulty Into Joy. […]

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