A Merry Little Cancer?


Breast cancer and melanoma survivor reflects on coping with cancer's challenges during the holidays.

When I first heard the “C” word — cancer, not Christmas — I thought it was an instant death sentence. Not so for me, but I do find myself coping with cancer stress and coping with holiday stress. Definitely not an ideal situation, yet this is what many of us face. Whether you're newly diagnosed, in active treatment or trying to sort out cancer survivorship weeks, months or years later, the holidays can be tough. Really tough. Maybe you're missing someone. Maybe you're wondering how long you will be around to celebrate the holidays with loved ones. Maybe you lack energy and stamina. Maybe you're just plain overwhelmed and stressed out. Here are some of my thoughts:

Drop the self-blame. It isn’t my fault that I lack energy and feel stressed out. Holidays used to be a bit of a challenge even before cancer showed up. Right? Be gentle with yourself. You deserve gentleness, especially now.

Perspective. I sort of grin to myself sometimes when I think about how I used to complain about “the hectic holidays” and “holiday stress.” Hmm. Stress, really? I am stressing about an upcoming PET scan. Am I stressing about getting my packages mailed in time to out-of-state relatives? Ah, not really. Having had breast cancer and melanoma sort of takes the "worst case scenario” game to a whole different level and late holiday packages don’t even make it to the game board.

Remember that people aren’t psychic. If I am going to simplify some of the holiday celebrating or gift giving, I tell people in advance. I tell them about my scaled-down plans and I remind myself it is their choice how they respond — whether they also simplify or continue as usual — that is their choice and I don’t have to stress about it.

Ask for help. The people in our lives want to help. They just may not know how. It is OK to turn the holiday feast into a buffet. Ask people to bring dishes to share. Ask for help decorating. Heck, reduce decorating. The reason for the season is the gathering together of the people we care about, not the inclusion or correct placement of every last little holiday decoration.

Make notes. Struggling with chemo brain, I make lists and keep notes year to year. I don’t want to reinvent the wheel each holiday. I like looking at last year’s notes, copying and tweaking. I keep notes about what I have given people, what food I have made and what cookies I bake. I try to cut back a little each year.

Let some of it go. The world won’t end — honestly! After careful consideration, one of my personal choices several years ago was to stop sending out cards. I guess that got me crossed off a few Christmas card lists, but some people chose to continue to send me cards. It is OK.

Share. If you are going to simplify your holidays, give some of the extras away now. There are always family members or people just starting their own holiday traditions who would be happy to accept the extra stuff you may be ready to weed out. It is fun to see the smile and hear the gratitude. I want to do some of that while I am here to see the appreciation and enjoyment.

Turn outward rather than inward. Turning inward is sometimes good for me for processing emotions, but the distraction that comes from thinking about others, decorating, baking or even shopping can be a welcome relief from more serious worries. Pay attention to yourself and learn what is helpful to you.

I wish you a peaceful and joyous holiday season. Thank you for reading!

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