Navigating Cancer, COVID-19 and Holiday Celebrations

We miss each other at this desperate time, and we need each other more than ever. But living with cancer creates an extra challenge when navigating celebrating the holidays during COVID-19.

My oldest daughter has canceled plans to come home for one of the end-of-the-year holidays. She is in graduate school and has a fellowship teaching at a private school. My other daughter, who is in college, has said that she doesn’t want to fly anywhere right now, which is perfectly reasonable and responsible, so she also isn’t on her way home.

If I wasn’t living with cancer, and if they hadn’t spent their teenage years watching me go through diagnosis and long-term treatment, maybe it would be a different story. Maybe they’d be among the thousands of kids expected to descend on hometowns across the US—welcomed because we love them and feared because they may unknowingly bring COVID-19 with them or contract the virus at home.

Yet how can we celebrate these important family holidays without our family? What does it mean when what you’ve lost with cancer includes time with your family while you are still alive? These are just two of the countless tragic questions of the pandemic, our response to it and the dreams of those living with cancer.

I have a friend with cancer whose beloved family member has isolated for several weeks so that she can visit just for the holiday. I got to see my older sister and her family, all of us masked when they visited their daughter in a nearby state. We make accommodations to connect whenever and however we can, and the holidays are no different.

It’s another loss and is beyond heartbreaking for those who are far from their loved ones and not likely to live long. For them and for all of us, this physical absence is painful. We have to be resourceful and determined to connect and find love within a terrible time.

When friends and family live nearby it’s tempting to think that everyone is being careful about who they visit and how they protect themselves. Really, even if they and you are being “perfect”, the virus can still get through. I have gone on walks with one friend, both of us wearing masks and keeping a physical distance. We’ve now gone for nearly nine months without a hug, which is my friend’s favorite greeting. With another friend, we’ve visited outdoors, masked and seated at least six feet apart, to enjoy a firepit and chat.

These friends are all especially careful around me because of my diagnosis and they are careful in their own lives because of older relatives they continue to visit or care for. There are other friends where even these distanced but in-person visits are neither practical nor safe. The pandemic has taught us that staying close to people is important and can take work, but in my own life--and I hope in yours--it’s also brought us Zoom, better use of video phone calls, more frequent e-mails, texts, phone calls and even mailed handwritten letters.

We miss each other and so we’ve found ways of reducing that loss.

Ultimately, the spirit of the Holidays is the same so reach out to your loved ones and know that this is a hard but temporary sacrifice to keep yourself and others safer. Don’t forego the joy of the season and the new year.

Even with our very small Thanksgiving gathering this year (my husband, myself, and our teenage son), we planned our regular feast. I hope that my daughters will be able to come home for their extended December visit, but if the pandemic means they’re safer staying put, we will still celebrate and bring those we love into our house virtually.

Honoring the days and events that matter and showing love to those you care about goes on. It is more important than ever. Acknowledge that you miss your people and that being separated is hard. Then pick up the phone or turn to your social media friends and be reminded of the joy that lives on despite everything around us.

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