It is almost that time of year again. The shopping malls have been decorated for Christmas since Halloween. Almost every radio station is playing Christmas music around the clock. If you have young children, they are excitedly waiting for Santa to come and visit. If you have preteens or teenagers, they are preparing their holiday wish lists and fully expecting Mom to buy them every item, no matter how high the cost.
Christmas movies paint a serene picture of the family hanging stockings together, opening the perfect presents (no socks or underwear) under a magnificent Christmas tree, and gathering together at a table groaning under the weight of every food imaginable. Some families probably do have Disney worthy Christmases but for most of us, there are some less than picture perfect moments.
I recall Christmases where my daughter was so excited, she threw up under the Christmas tree. Then there were the Christmases of my youth where people would start drinking too early and by dinnertime would be rude and belligerent. (This was also usually accompanied by someone throwing up). The presents were often bought during the peak of the holiday shopping season in understaffed stores filled with testy shoppers, creating huge amounts of stress. The feast on the table was often prepared by one woman, usually Mom, who baked cookies for weeks and was up at the crack of dawn preparing the turkey and side dishes. The poor woman was so exhausted by dinnertime that she couldn’t even enjoy the food she had so painstakingly prepared.
These less than perfect holiday moments can be enough to throw a healthy person into a tizzy. Now throw breast cancer into the mix and it is easy to understand why many patients and survivors dread the winter holiday season.
It isn’t just Christmas or Hanukkah that bring forth these feelings of anxiety and dread. Thanksgiving, children’s birthday parties, New Year’s Eve, and anniversaries can also be difficult times for patients, survivors, and their families. Although this post focuses on Christmas, it is called “happy holidays” for non-politically correct reasons. The issues outlined below can surface on any special event where people are supposed to be celebrating with others and the expectation is that everyone is filled with happiness and joy.
If life was fair, cancer would be diagnosed or treated on a calendar system in which these events would only occur at the least stressful times of the year. I was going to say they would only occur at a convenient time but there is no convenient time of the year to have cancer.
Unfortunately, people receive cancer diagnoses or news of recurrences or metastases year round, including right before the Christmas season (or other important events). The shock of receiving this kind of news makes it difficult to want to celebrate and be festive with distant relatives or friends. As well as trying to process the bad news, there is often a sense of guilt about ruining everyone else’s Christmas/Hanukkah/Kwanza if you talk about cancer. Somehow rushing around the mall for presents or cooking a major meal seems trivial and pointless in the larger sense of the life and death issues you are facing. You may not be ready to share your news with the extended family, yet at the same time, cancer is all you think about. New Year’s Day with its emphasis on making resolutions for the year ahead
can bring on depression if you are worried that this may be your last year alive. Even if you don’t anticipate dying, it is hard to make positive resolutions when you know you will be spending much of the new year facing surgery, chemotherapy, and/or radiation treatments.
For those already in treatment or recovering from surgery, there are even more challenges to face. You feel unwell. You ARE unwell. All the preparations for the holidays are too overwhelming to cope with. There is no way you will be baking, cooking, and cleaning, to prepare a feast for a crowd of people. Even preparing a simple Christmas meal with only your immediate family may be enough to knock you out for the next few days.
If you are having chemotherapy, the smell of certain foods may make you feel nauseous. Chemotherapy often affects the taste buds making even favourite foods taste unpleasant. Painful mouth sores can make any kind of eating feel like torture. Fatigue and loss of appetite are also common side effects of chemotherapy. Finally, you may be warned by your oncologist to avoid crowds as your immune system is weakened. Shopping malls and large family gatherings may be more than just exhausting. They may make you so sick, you end up hospitalized. This happened to me 3 years ago and I spent the entire 4 day Thanksgiving holiday in the hospital with a fever and a white blood count of zero.
Radiation treatment and surgery bring on their own challenges. As well as feeling exhausted, you may be in pain from radiation burns or in all the places where the surgeon cut into your body. You may be taking heavy duty painkillers that wreak havoc with your mind, appetite, and digestive system. You may not have the energy to sit up for long periods of time socializing and making small talk with people you are not especially close with the rest of the year.
Even when active treatment has come to an end, the depression and anxiety associated with losing your medical safety net can leave you feeling less than merry or jolly. The holidays are difficult for most depression sufferers as the rest of the world looks so happy while you feel hopeless and miserable inside. Your fears of a recurrence or metastasis may be heightened right after treatment has ended and the oncologist says, “see you in 3 months”. It’s a scary time as you try to transition from full-time cancer patient to finding your “new normal”. People may be expecting you to bounce right back to your old life once treatment ends. You may feel like you still have one foot in the cancer world and the other foot in mid-air, looking for a safe landing spot in the post-treatment land.
BRCA1 and BRCA2 families have their own special problems with family celebrations. They may be grieving the loss of those relatives who were taken from the world too soon because of cancer. Those who are previvors may worry about their own upcoming surgeries or question their decision to opt for surveillance. Watching the young children and teenagers of their extended families, they may worry as to what lays ahead for them in the future.
For some people, the holidays may still be fun and joyous as it is a welcome distraction from thinking about cancer. You may welcome the break from the trudgery of treatment. Depending on the type of gathering, you may only be surrounded by the people you love most in the world and find their company soothing and comforting. Particularly if you have children, you may make an all out effort to give them great Christmas (or birthday) memories just in case things go terribly wrong and you want them to remember you as something other than a sick Mom.
With my 4 cancers, I have been in diagnosis, treatment, or recovery mode on every major holiday and special event over the years. During Cancer 4, there was Thanksgiving in the hospital, my then 11 year old son’s birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese, and my then 9 year old daughter’s birthday party at a go cart track on a very windy day, while clutching onto my wig for dear life! It wasn’t always easy and it wasn’t always fun, but I’m glad we made some good memories on those occasions. Christmas and my birthday also fell during chemotherapy but both of those events were very low key affairs as that was all I was capable of doing at the time.
The truth is nobody actually lives in a Disney movie, not the healthy and not the sick. Christmas or Thanksgiving or your birthday can be whatever you want it to be and whatever you are capable of doing. If you want company and all the trappings of Christmas, see if someone else can do the heavy lifting for you. Instead of you making the dinner, see if someone else can host Christmas this year. Or choose to celebrate more casually with your immediate family at home or at a Christmas buffet in some fancy restaurant where you won’t be forced to make small talk with a relative you barely know.
To cut down on holiday stress, avoid the shopping malls and make all your purchases online. Spring the extra few dollars for them to be gift wrapped. Let your children decorate the tree however they want, no matter how untraditional the results may be. Do everything you can to pamper yourself, whatever that may look like to you. Get a lot of rest, take deep breaths, and don’t be afraid to reach out to someone, anyone, for help. Create a holiday that brings you peace instead of stress, joy instead of anxiety, even if it means abandoning all your former ideas of what a traditional holiday should be. Happy Holidays to everyone in Cancerland and to all the people who love them!
Sharon Greene December 11, 2014