Preparing For a Season of Thanksgiving as a Cancer Survivor

Thanksgiving can be a stressful time for those with cancer, but it doesn’t have to be. I learned that it can also be a time filled with love and joy.

I love this time of year when the weather turns cooler, the leaves begin to fall and the holidays are just around the corner. It’s a time of gathering with friends and family, a time of reflection and a time of gratitude.

For a person affected by cancer, it can be a very emotional time, especially for those like me who’ve survived cancer.

My first Thanksgiving after being diagnosed with cancer was extremely challenging. I’d just completed 28 rounds of radiation a month before the holiday. My chest and neck still bore the radiation burns, which were difficult to heal. I wasn’t feeling the best and was hardly in the mood to celebrate. But family and friends helped me survive that holiday by offering their love and encouragement.

Although I wasn’t sure I was going to live to see Christmas, I did. Since then, I’ve done my best to focus on daily gratitude. It’s been a constant reminder to be thankful for each moment of every day.

This year, eight years post diagnosis, I’m looking forward to the holidays. They’re a lot of work, to be sure, but well worth the effort. In my freezer sits a big, fat 19-pound turkey. He’ll provide a good meal for my family and me. I’ll begin planning the menu and sending out invitations, then, I’ll start cooking some of our favorite family recipes, many of which have become annual traditions like my famous cornbread dressing, my sweet cranberry orange relish, creamy hashbrown casseroleand sweet potato souffle. Yum!

There’s nothing like having a house full of people during holiday time. The joy and laughter are priceless. While those are always things I look forward to, I also find myself becoming introspective days before the big celebration. It’s not necessarily a bad thing — in fact, I think it’s a rather good thing as I look back on all the blessings I’ve received over the years, especially regarding my health. Reflection is a vital part of gratitude.

But for some, with wounds still fresh and raw, feelings of gratitude may be very far away. Those people may find themselves mired with fear and grief, both of which are very natural immediately following a cancer diagnosis. An unknown future can thrust a person into a season of depression, anxiety or despair.

The holidays come and go so quickly. Expectations can be high and can often lead to disappointments.

Here are seven things I’ve learned over the years that have helped make my holidays easier:

  1. It’s OK to feel mixed emotions during the holiday season. It can feel like a crazy roller coaster ride, one minute happy, the next sad. By thinking about what is now instead of what could have or should have been, you can be more present.
  2. Give place to your grief. Acknowledge it and give yourself time to process what you’ve been through. Take one day at a time. It’s perfectly acceptable to cry. Excuse yourself when you feel overcome with emotion, but don’t be afraid to let others experience your loss, too. Losing a body part is hard.
  3. Keep a gratitude list. Start at the beginning of the month and list three things daily for which you’re grateful. Doing this helps shift perspective.
  4. Know your limits. Keep things simple. Let others help. If you want to use paper plates, do! Instead of focusing so much on the food and the meal, think about the friends or family who’ll be present and the sweet memories you’ll make together.
  5. Games can help alleviate tension and provide a much-needed distraction. There are many types of games available. Some of our favorites are Apples to Apples, Speak Out and Scattergories, but singing karaoke or playing Twister can also be hilarious.
  6. A good night’s sleep can help keep emotions in check. Try to go to bed early before the big day.
  7. Give yourself freedom to relax! It’s OK to rest and enjoy the day. If it’s tiring to carry the conversation, give yourself permission to be an observer. Go with the flow. Listen to your body.

Holidays are meaningful annual events. Whether yours is chaotic or quiet, remember to look for the blessings. Sometimes they come in unexpected ways.

I love this quote by self-help author, Melody Beattie: 

“Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity. It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend. Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today and creates a vision for tomorrow.”

Thanksgiving. Giving thanks. We should do this daily, but we often take much for granted.

This year, I plan on making the holiday noteworthy as I reflect on the past eight years. I’ve overcome many hardships, but I’m still here and I’m very happy to be alive.

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