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“To love at all is to be vulnerable,” wrote C.S. Lewis. Children naturally know very little except love and trust, and because of this, they can’t help but also be happy. Like any child, I was blissfully unaware that love was anything other than happiness. Soon, I found vulnerability of love makes happiness which makes it all the sweeter. I had no choice but to learn this early on in my life. Perhaps nowhere is this vulnerability more evident than in the midst of a personal confrontation against cancer.

My Story in a Nutshell

Acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) was my diagnosis. Most five-year-old children have an overabundance of energy and enjoy playing little-league soccer with their friends. I enjoyed playing too but lacked the energy to keep up with the games. My attentive parents noticed I would emerge from games with the darkest and most swiftly-developed bruises all over my shins, upper legs, and even arms. How come the other children weren’t bruising like this? Why is our son so tired all the time? Off to the pediatrician I went. Alarmed himself by the highly elevated white-blood-cell count he discovered in my CBC, I was referred immediately to the world’s leading facility for the research and treatment of childhood cancer – St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis. There, the oncologists confirmed my pediatrician’s and my parents’ greatest fears. On that unseasonably warm and sunny October day in 1994, my cancer journey began.

After spending nearly two months as an inpatient for initial chemo inductions, I was released just before Christmas that year to continue treatments as an outpatient. For the next two and a half years, I would return to St. Jude every Tuesday for chemo treatments and exams with my oncologists. Young as I was, I cannot forget these treatments, procedures, and medications, which brought agonizing pain or profuse nausea. However, I do remember truly beautiful and joyous moments amidst the hell that was my journey through cancer.

Happiness, Served Two Ways

I have learned that experiences never occur in a vacuum. That is, there are always other people with whom we share life. I found happiness through the people who cared for me, and the faith, hope, and unceasing love they imparted. In reflecting upon my own experiences with cancer, I have identified two constant and continual “avenues of happiness” from within the “frame of experience” of my own journey through cancer. Perhaps these will bring some peace, hope, and healing to those of you who read this also. Your healing, in whatever form that may come, is my hope.

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Knowing the Difference

Experiencing cancer taught me a very important lesson about happiness. Happiness and joy are not the same. Happiness is a temporary and fleeting emotion. It is a beautiful, positive, and hopeful emotion, but it isn’t constantly sustainable. We all know this through experience. We get sad, we get mad, and we fear. We are human, and this is perfectly normal. Happiness has, at its source, an external origin. That is, the things which make us happy generally emanate from outside or somewhat apart from us. Seeing a loved one; receiving a letter from them; enjoying a good meal; visiting a favorite place – each of these things evokes happiness within us. Joy, however, is not temporary – nor is it chiefly an emotion. It is an emotion, but it is also an interior state of being. Joy emanates from within. Positive psychology even supports this vital distinction between the two.

Related to happiness, joy is found not in our seeing a loved one, but in the love we have for that loved one. We may be happy whenever we can share time with them, but we are joyful to love them even when they are absent from us. We may be happy to receive a letter from someone, but when that letter crumbles away with the years, joy remains because someone thought enough of us to write it. In visiting our favorite place, we find happiness in a change of pace or scenery, but joy comes in the journey throughout the place itself.

Joy in the Journey

Cancer is a journey. It’s not a pleasant one by any stretch of the imagination, but it is incumbent upon each one of us to defy the illness itself. While cancer acts as a ruthless thief intent on stealing our joy from us, we have, within us (and available to us) the abilities to laugh, smile, and yes, even rejoice in its face! The late Austrian psychiatrist, Viktor Frankl, called this “the will-to-meaning.” He argued that when we find within our lives – even in our worst situations – some reason to continue living, we give meaning to our existence. In cultivating joy in the long-term, in addition to finding happiness in the short-term, we embrace and reclaim the independence that cancer (or our other adversities) attempt to steal away from us. The illness itself may change the way we come to experience positivity, but it cannot take from us the power to cultivate it ourselves.


About the Author

Anthony Maranise, M.A., BCC is the author of Cross of a Different Kind: Cancer & Christian Spirituality (Eternal Insight Press, 2018), a 20+ year cancer survivor, spiritual theologian, and doctoral student in Interdisciplinary Leadership at Creighton University (Omaha, NE). He has dedicated his life to both academic instruction and writing in hopes of helping others maximize their full potential. You may learn more about Anthony or connect with him by visiting: his website.