The holiday season can be difficult for cancer patients and their loved ones. It's tough to be merry while dealing with treatment side effects or wondering whether one will be alive this time next year.
By the end of November this year, I'd hit a low point. My energy had waned, oppressed by the shorter days and gray skies of Seattle and a general sense of ill health. My cough had increased, stirring fears of recurrence. My writing muse had burned out after weeks of intensive Lung Cancer Awareness Month activities.
Then, within one week, two lung cancer buddies died, and a third friend died of metastatic breast cancer days after being diagnosed. I kept vigil with her family as her lungs failed from obstructive pneumonia--a scenario that was far too familiar. The shadow of my own Ghost of Christmas Future loomed, and holiday lights did nothing to brighten it.
In a rare moment of prescience last summer, my family had planned the perfect remedy for me: a leisurely week at a tropical beach.
I'm normally not one to lie on a beach chair and simply feel, but at this point in my journey, it was exactly what I needed. The bright sky and arrhythmic breaking of Caribbean waves on white sand soothed my spirit. As the newly prescribed steroid inhaler relaxed my breathing, the environment relaxed my thoughts. A walk in waist-deep surf reawakened my body to sensory pleasures, and cancer-induced physical limitations stirred only the tiniest twinge of regret.
On a tour of Yucatán ruins, our guide said the Maya did not fear death because their lives belonged not to them, but to something greater than themselves. I realized that while I had been focusing on something greater than myself (making a difference for other lung cancer patients in whatever time I had left), I had been holding it too tightly, afraid to let go. For many months, I had not been able to relax.
This trip, with its unstructured pace and calming background, helped me to let go of the NEED to serve a greater purpose. It reminded me that even if I never wrote another word or gave another speech about lung cancer, I still had a reason for living: my family.
My holiday miracle this year was time with my family, away from distractions of everyday lives. We solved word puzzles. We watched a brilliant thunderstorm drift onshore. We wandered through ancient cities and discussed lost cultures. We felt the sand in our toes (and socks and shoes and swimsuits). And we had 22 sit-down meals together. For the first time ever, we all agreed we wanted to do this particular vacation again.
On our flight home, as the three of us admired the distant green arc of the aurora over Canada, I realized the best gift was being present with my family. In that moment, cancer held no power over me. My muse returned.