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Celebrating the Holidays as a Patient, Survivor and Caregiver

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This past holiday season made me realize that I feel a strong sense of fulfillment as a cancer survivor and caregiver.

Sue McCarthy reflects on how being a patient, survivor and caregiver makes her feel a strong sense of fulfillment.

I entered remission from Stage 3B non-small cell lung cancer as a two-time cancer survivor for over ten years on Jan. 2, 2020.

Then another year and one-half later I joined St. Peregrine’s Club, a cancer support group. I believed it was time for me to give back. I intended to advise and possibly even mentor individuals in treatment at the time. Immediately after arriving at the group, I connected with a woman about my age; we started talking and texting. She had been diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer four months earlier.

My new friend was optimistic and full of faith from the day we met. However, two years have gone by and she has already significantly outlived her expected lifespan.

Neither she nor I had lived easy lives; both of us have experienced family struggles and losses during our friendship. We have a lot in common.

Last fall, in 2023, her second chemotherapy started to take its toll on her, so her oncologist suggested she take a break from treatment for three months until early December, several weeks ago.

Unfortunately, the break led to an increase in metastases in her lungs and liver. My special friend is now receiving a combination of chemo and immunotherapy. Her circumstances, which came on the heels of yet another serious family issue, have further weakened her. Right now, I’m feeling so frustrated; I wish so much I could do something for her — to take the weight off her back.

Soon after Christmas of 2022, after putting some significant time and effort into the resolution of some of my long-term childhood family issues, I learned that my first cousin had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. I hardly knew him but welcomed the chance to meet a new family member. He lived out of town, but he and I have texted and emailed, and gotten to know each other.

He’s struggled with harsh chemo and an intense surgical procedure. He’s now completing his second chemo regimen to kill the remaining malignant cells in his body. I’m hugely impressed by my cousin’s mental and emotional ability to cope with all his treatment.

I nonetheless know how much support from loved ones, even from a new cousin, keeps him going. I’m looking forward to him entering remission and then coming home to visit. It all seems so much more important than a holiday party or buying all those gifts.

And finally, last spring, I learned of one more cousin who needed a chance to talk to someone, someone who had been there, done that. She had been diagnosed with esophageal cancer, and once again, I welcomed the opportunity to get to know a member of my extended family.

Although my latest cousin mentee had recently had a CT scan, which confirmed no spread of her cancer, she had a difficult decision to make regarding her next treatment. Again, a situation in which I want to get completely involved, but of course I don’t want to overstep my bounds. I want to be there for her, more than I want to decorate or bake cookies.

The holiday season is joyful, festive, glamorous, merry and bright, all cheerful and fun words. And some of that can be enjoyed by cancer patients, survivors and caregivers.

When I think back to my experiences in cancer treatment, I remember after meningioma surgery, I was sent to the ICU routinely and felt so sensitive to my teenage daughters seeing me in those circumstances. I couldn't be loving and protective as a mother over those next thirty-six hours.

Years later, the radiation therapy I received as part of my lung cancer treatment, took place between mid-December and mid-January. I had Christmas and New Year's Day off. The decorations in the cancer center were nice; some of the medical professionals wore Santa hats. And I was fine, focusing on getting through my treatment. That’s what mattered. Going home with red and green lifesavers was a special Christmas treat, no lively partying for me.

I had my five-year post-diagnosis CT scan, the most significant time in one’s cancer journey, last June. Officially, I’m cured! I surprised even myself when I didn’t yell, cheer or jump up and down.

Melancholy was the emotion I experienced as a survivor and a caregiver. I felt sadness. Three very important people in my life were not as fortunate as I was.

That was six months ago. After a few days my melancholy dissipated, and contentment slowly took its place.

This December has brought with it contentment for me, with just a little melancholy thrown in. Like my cousins and my special friend, I am part of an ongoing cancer journey, still receiving yearly scans and keeping on the lookout for recurrence or spread of cancer.

I feel a strong sense of fulfillment — an experience that I couldn’t have had without the mentees in my life.

If you’re a survivor, please consider giving back.

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