Martha lives in Illinois and was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer in January 2015. She has a husband and three children, ranging in age from 12 to 18, a dog and a lizard.
Emotions are not an either/or proposition when it comes to metastatic cancer.
A lot is written at the end of the year to remind us about what matters most in life: gratitude, family, new beginnings, hope, love. These reminders appear in earnest starting in November and continue throughout the holiday season, only to fade away usually by mid-January, when we remember how hard it is to keep up with the plans and resolutions made in moments of euphoria.
Among my least favorite lessons shared on social media at this time of year is the idea that I, as a person with cancer, should be grateful to the very disease that is the likely to kill me, has already killed friends and is in the active process of doing just that to others. That somehow I am a better person with cancer than without, and if I'm not, then maybe I'm doing cancer wrong. I am a different person, sure, but I'm not better, and I wouldn't tell the person with diabetes or who had a stroke to put a positive spin on those life-changing health events. In truth, I tend to just pass on by that kind of thinking whenever it shows up — to each his or her own – but this "bright-siding" can have the terrible effect of causing people who are already struggling with the very real and serious implications of cancer to think their feelings aren't normal and encourages denial of pain, fear, and loss, which are emotions that people feel during the holidays even without the shadow of life-threatening disease.
We have to be careful with our words.
I think that's especially true at this time of year, when it is tempting to put on a happy face but to go home and cry. I like the "fake it until you make it" maxim for many things but not for my emotions. Those I want to feel.
Feeling all the emotions that come with a metastatic diagnosis has helped me make sense of my life. Gratitude for my doctors and friends is right there next to the anxiety I feel about how my life has changed. Emotional life is not an either/or proposition.
This holiday season is my fifth since I first knew something was wrong and got the initial unstaged diagnosis of cancer. I'm still figuring out how to do the season right. My family and friends are, it seems, happiest when there are no reminders that my life has changed. They're not being uncaring —they just want everything to go on as it always has. I'd like that too.
But it can't. It can't. Because my life is changed from what it was just a few years ago. I know that I'm living with a disease that will progress someday and may become untreatable. I have friends who have died of the very thing I'm living with. I know people who work hard every single day to help me and others with metastatic cancer live longer, better lives. I live with a mix hope and gratitude and fear and loneliness that colors the happiness I feel as my kids decorate the Christmas tree or glaze sugar cookies.
So, I stumble on through. I keep my notebook of things I'm thankful for; I hug the daughter returning from school and carefully comb through the gift lists my kids compile. I don't deny myself the sadness that comes with the inevitable thoughts about how I now count my Christmases from the date of my diagnosis and how I try to be careful with my wishes for the new year.
And I don't deny how thrilling it is to be here at all.