The Stresses of Holidays and Cancer

The holidays are so intertwined with the notion of stress that if you Google the term "holiday stress," you'll get 24,500,000 results.
PUBLISHED November 16, 2015
Mike Verano is a licensed professional counselor, licensed marriage and family therapist and thymic cancer survivor with over 30 years experience in the mental health field. Mike has had articles published in national and international magazines and is the author of The Zen of Cancer: A Mindful Journey From Illness to Wellness. In addition, he maintains the blog, Confessions of a Pacifist in the War on Cancer. He and his wife, Kathy, live in Lanexa, Virginia.

Six years ago, I was ready to jump on the holiday stress sleigh and then I was diagnosed with cancer one week after Thanksgiving. I still remember that Christmas, as my wife and I awaited the thoracic surgery that was going to remove the tumor growing in my chest. Knowing that after surgery, chemo and radiation therapies were waiting in the wings, there was little holiday spirit in the air. There was, however, a strange peace.

Upon reflection, it occurred to us that as a result of challenges ahead of us, the usual holiday madness was not stressing us out. There were no concerns about parties to attend or not attend, no worries about finances to cover the costs of gifts, no fears of family functions becoming dysfunctional — none of the usual seasonal stressors.

One of the gifts that can come from a life-altering illness is the release of needless worries. Away from the mind wanderings of “what if,” there is a space where all is quiet, all is calm. Whether this inner peace comes from a meditative practice or simply being fully awake to the present moment, the silent mind becomes a whole mind and we no longer feel like we’re going to pieces.

Don’t get me wrong, the holidays still get hectic.

However, the stress does not feel the same. I find it helpful to see this time of year as the beginning of my survivorship. Whenever I feel my inner Grinch getting ready to make an appearance, I think back to where I was six years ago and the fact that my online shopping cart just crashed doesn't seem like such a catastrophe.

Realizing that not everyone has had a holiday epiphany and many more are facing the beginning of their cancer challenges, I wrote the following Stressmas carols as reminders of the true spirit of the season.

Jangled Nerves (sung to the tune of Jingle Bells)

Oh, jangled nerves, jangled nerves
Jangled all the day
Oh how sad it is to spend
Our holiday time this way

Dashing through the malls
With a cart that’s gone astray
Back to the bank we go
Crying all the way

Bells on registers ring
Making spirits sigh
Oh, what bills the mailman brings
Why is my interest rate so high?

Oh, jangled nerves, jangled nerves
Jangled all the day
Oh how sad it is to spend
Our holiday time this way

A day or two ago
I felt my chest grow tight
And very soon I found myself
Pacing through the night

I tried to get some sleep
But the fears they would not go
I knew I’d fallen very deep
I never felt so low

Oh, jangled nerves, jangled nerves
Jangled all the day
Oh how sad it is to spend
Our holiday time this way

Let It Go (sung to the tune of Let It Snow)

Oh, the world outside if frightful
And everyone seems so spiteful
But since it’s no way to grow
I let it go, let it go, let it go

The stress it is not stoppin’
And my heart it feels like poppin’
But before I hit an all-time low
I let it go, let it go, let it go

And when I finally see the light
Nothing seems quite so bad
When I surrender to the fight
I discover the peace that I had

Now the fears are slowly dying
And my hearts no longer crying
All I ever needed to know
Was let it go, let it go, let it go

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