BEACH, EXCITED, confidentHappy New Year! I hope your first few days of 2017 have been blessed and contemplative. What went well? What would you do differently? What did you learn? What do you want to be true one year from now? Three years? What do we feel good about and where do we need to shift perspective? If we don’t learn and grow from what happened in 2016 and tweak our course appropriately, history tends to repeat itself and generously gives us similar lessons over and over until we find the gift it was offering.

Earlier today, someone told me they can’t wait to say goodbye to 2016 and pretend it never happened. I had to think for a moment because the last five months have also been incredibly tough for me personally, including the suicide of my sweet baby brother. I miss him every day but if I discard the whole year, I would have to return all the lessons and gifts it brought me as well. Pain enlightens us and propels us forward in a way unlike anything else. Since I can’t change what happened in 2016, I’ll take it all to heart and trust the gifts will continue to unfold. I hope you will too.

Not Everything Feels Like a Gift

Last night I tripped over a post on social media that made me sit down on my garage steps and read it on the spot. It was a beautiful and courageous story about a young girl named Sara and her life-threatening battle with cancer at age ten. I was struck by her insight and skill at #findingthegift, something we all can benefit from, especially in less than ideal situations.

The gift doesn’t always appear right away, but what matters is training our minds to trust the gift is there, unfolding in the midst of the chaos. And even if a gift never appears, it’s about believing there was one. How much better do trust and hope feel than chalking bad things up to fruitless bad luck? Too many times in my life, the “bad” things have actually brought the best things.

I actually know Sara’s family and used to live across the street from her grandmother, Doris. Everyone was devastated and in shock when Doris’ 10-year old granddaughter was diagnosed with neuroblastoma in August, 2009. The struggle was fierce and very bleak at times.

Seven years have passed and Sara has decided to reveal what her journey was like and share her gratitude … and her secret shame. I hope you are as touched as I was and encouraged by her ability to share the gifts of battling cancer at ten years old. In her own words, here is Sara’s story.

Sara’s Diagnosis

Sara Givens at ten. SUBMITTED

On December 22, 2009 I had a tumor removed from the left side of my abdomen. Not just a tumor, but neuroblastoma which is a type of cancer. When I was diagnosed that August before, I didn’t really understand the road waiting ahead. I remember my mom constantly having to leave the room because she didn’t want me to see her cry. I remember constantly telling my mom and my family that everything was going to be alright because I hated to see anyone upset. I remember friends, family, and pastors all coming to see me and hangout in the hospital, and to pray over me.

I remember constantly telling my mom and my family that everything was going to be alright because I hated to see anyone upset.

The journey that awaited me was far from what I had anticipated—I was only 10 years old after all. The various treatments used constantly made me sick. During that year, I pretty much lived in the hospital. I got pulled out of school. My hair started to fall out and I was constantly losing weight. I never got to see any of my friends and honestly, I was too embarrassed. Besides the fact that I was bald and only weighed 52 pounds, I had tubes coming out of my chest (central line). I felt as though I looked like a sickly, old man. But I always tried to smile because I knew my disease was not only affecting me, but all those around me too. I didn’t want to be any more of a burden than I already thought I had been.

Angels Along the Way

Here’s the special part. My community banded together to help my family and support us. People hosted benefits and concerts. My school was constantly sending me get well cards from all the students in my grade. Some people would send me gifts or games to try to cheer me up. Along with some help from close friends, my mom set up a Facebook page called “Positively Sara” to help keep friends and family updated with news. My page grew and transitioned from close friends and family to people and strangers from across the world. It was not only a place where they could stay informed, but a place where they would post words of encouragement and support. Even though they didn’t really know what we were going through, it really helped to know that somebody out there cared.

Even though they didn’t really know what we were going through, it really helped to know that somebody out there cared.

One of my favorite memories was driving home after I had been in the hospital for thirty days (including my birthday). When we pulled into my neighborhood, there were lime green bows tied to all the mailboxes. A family in our neighborhood who had been extremely supportive and helpful began to craft the bows and sell them to help raise money for my family. At the time, the financial burden hadn’t even occurred to me. I was just so ecstatic because lime green was my color. As soon as I saw the bows, I knew they were for me.

I received all my treatment through Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital. No child wants to spend every day in a hospital bed, where even though you’re getting treatment to feel better, it makes you feel worse first. So not every day was smiles and positivity, but some of the nurses and doctors that were assigned to my case made it a lot easier. There were a handful of nurses that could brighten my mood, even if they came in at 4 am just to wake me up and stick me with a needle. And there were doctors and surgeons I would actually get excited to see.

Keeping Cancer a Secret

Once I got cleared and my treatment was done, I wanted to pretend it never happened at all. When I moved to a new city, I told no one. Once people know you’ve been through a tragedy, they treat you different. I was sick and tired of being pitied. If they asked about my short hair, I’d just say I cut it. If they asked about my scars, I’d avoid the topic. I didn’t want to be known as the girl who had cancer.

Once people know you’ve been through a tragedy, they treat you different. I was sick and tired of being pitied.

I was lying to people I called friends. I don’t like lying, I don’t enjoy it. I would stay up for hours wondering if it was the right thing, trying to justify my words and actions. To this day, I still think about a girl in 7th grade who asked me if I had cancer, because of my short hair. I told her no. We are not close friends now and I highly doubt she remembers, but it still bothers me that I’ve never told her the truth. I deleted all social media for awhile because I knew if people attempted to look me up, they would find the “Positively Sara” Facebook page. I was ashamed. I was embarrassed. I felt like there was still something wrong with me and I hated living a lie.

The Gifts

One day I decided that no matter how hard I tried to block out those memories, they are a part of me. What some call a tragedy, I call a blessing in disguise. While battling cancer, I grew up quicker than normal. I learned a lot of things. I learned that what’s on the outside doesn’t reflect what’s on the inside and sometimes you have to look past it. I learned to try my best to be kind to others and to refrain from judging them as best I can, for most actions have an underlying cause. There’s always another side to the story so be gracious to others. I’ve learned to look for the good in people and situations.

What some call a tragedy, I call a blessing in disguise.

The biggest lesson I feel I have learned is perhaps the one that took the longest for me to realize. People have imperfections, people have histories and that’s okay. I’ve been learning to accept my own flaws and my battle with neuroblastoma: several chemotherapies, surgeries, radiation, antibody transplants, blood transfusions, endless nights at the hospital, and so much more. It’s a part of me. I was not meant to go through all of those things just to keep it a secret. I believe that I have suffered hardships for a reason. I am meant to help others, to be a beacon of light when all they see is darkness.


Because I have been so ashamed of my past I don’t think I’ve ever told anyone thank you:

  • Thank you Mom for those endless nights at the hospital. For giving up your job and your life to always be there for me. I know there were several occasions where it wasn’t easy and you wanted to leave. But thank you for staying. I love you.
  • Thank you James for coming to visit me and cheering me up. Thank you for being there for my mom because while I was confiding in her, she had no one to turn to. Thank you for being family. I love you.
  • Thank you Dad for always coming to visit me in the hospital and going out of your way to spoil me when you could. Thank you for taking care of the family while Mom and I were constantly in the hospital. I love you.
  • Thank you to all my siblings and I’m sorry. I’m sorry because I know it wasn’t easy on you guys either. I’m sorry because I know for awhile it seemed like everything was about me. I’m sorry that for that year, your lives had no stability. But I’m thankful for all of you. Thank you for frequently visiting me even though I know it’s not easy to see someone you love in poor condition. Thank you for all the laughs and the distractions. I love you guys.
  • Thank you to the Hendersonville/Gallatin community and several others who showed so much support. Thank you for helping my family through tough times.
  • Thank you to all the nurses and doctors who helped make my life a little more bearable.

Not Alone

Sara, 2016. SUBMITTED

I just graduated high school and I’m about to start college. I am seven years into remission. I have more family and loved ones than I know what to do with. Through my journey, even when I felt alone, I was never alone. I promise you, if I didn’t have the help and support from all these people, I would not be here today. Whatever battle you are fighting, it is a battle. You cannot win a battle with a one-man army.

Through my journey, even when I felt alone, I was never alone.

There were times, dark times where I didn’t care anymore. I just wanted it to be over. But when I would get into those moods, I would think about my family. I would read the Facebook page. Because to know that someone out there is rooting for you, to know that you are loved, it helps.

So if there’s anybody out there who’s struggling, you are not alone. There are people who care and want to help. You have to reach out and let somebody know that you’re not okay, that you need help. I know it’s hard, but sometimes you have to ask for help. ~Sara G.

Time to Shift Perspective

We may not all be battling something as serious as cancer. But as we embark on a new year faced with the choice to accept, surrender and grow from what happened in 2016 or with whatever we are walking through right now, can we ask ourselves, “What could be the gift that comes out of this?” Just asking the question opens our minds up to possibilities and invites new perspective into the way we are framing all the experiences and emotions we are bringing with us into 2017.

Can we ask ourselves, “What could be the gift that comes out of this?”

Perspective is much more powerful than reality. It is reality, as we know it. And every day, we have the power to choose how we see our world, our place in it and where we want to go from here. I am committed to doing this work as well. If only knowing what to do was enough! Knowledge is great but application is the real key to creating a life worth having.

I hope we can all take Sara’s advice and let someone help with the troubles we may be struggling with privately. A problem shared is a problem halved. Why not let someone be the gift in our situation, or perhaps it’s our turn to be the gift for someone else?

Happy New Year! Cheers to an abundance of growth, presents and presence in 2017! May you also be blessed with insight, wisdom, humility, compassion, grace for yourselves and others, and most of all, love.