When Holidays Celebrate What You Might Lose

December 15, 2017
Martha Carlson
Martha Carlson

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.

Statements to live by in making this time of year a little easier.

Three years ago this month, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. My husband and I kept it a secret until after Christmas. It wasn’t hard since I hadn’t started treatment and we didn’t know the important stuff—stage, drugs, surgery, radiation, chemotherapy.

Since then, December is the moment when emotions I’ve felt throughout the entire year threaten to swallow me whole. The end of one year and the start of another is traditionally a time to reflect but with a diagnosis of metastatic cancer, that reflection is difficult and feels dangerous. After all, December holidays celebrate the very things I lose with this diagnosis—time with my family and new beginnings.

Although I’m addicted to reading “feel better this season” articles with advice for cultivating a positive outlook, in my heart I think it is most helpful to also acknowledge and accept the loss this season delivers to my doorstep. Instead of choosing to feel sad today and happy tomorrow, I feel both right now. This way of accepting emotions (I call it both/and, for “I feel both sad and happy”) has become a go-to stress-relieving tool for me. Kelly Gosklags, who spoke at the Living Beyond Breast Cancer metastatic conference, brought home to me the idea of clearly stating everything I feel even if those feelings are direct opposites.

It’s a particularly helpful technique when cancer is a heavy counterweight to the emotions many others are feeling. At times when celebrations are a given—such as during December and New Year’s--it can be tempting and is certainly easy to fall into a pattern of seeing only the painful, negative, and sad. It’s equally tempting to deny the sadness and live as though my life stretches out before me like those of most people I know.

But doing either of those things is a trap. I felt a multitude of emotions before cancer, and the same is true now.

In addition to naming my emotions, I rely on living these statements to make this time of year a little easier:

Be Deliberate

Living on autopilot, although sometimes necessary, can shield you from unaddressed feelings but it is so much more fulfilling to be aware of what we are doing and the choices we are making. For one day, or one hour, try to think about each action you are taking and what it brings you.

Be Different

Each day offers many chances to do things differently. By deliberately stepping out of the pattern of your day, you are forced to see the world from a different perspective, no matter how slight the shift.

Be Honest

If you can’t be honest with the people who love you, be honest with yourself. There’ve been times when I’ve hidden the struggle of my diagnosis from myself. So many people urge relentless positivity but honesty and clarity about what I feel have made me feel stronger and more at peace.

Be Sad

It’s okay to be sad. It’s okay to cry. Definitely it’s okay to admit to the complexities of our lives. Who wouldn’t feel sadness if confronted by a metastatic cancer diagnosis?

But Be Happy Too

I say I’m lucky because simple things can bring me back to joy--seeing photos from a friend’s trip, a Facebook feed of dogs and cats, successes of my children and husband, a sunny winter day. I don’t say cancer is a gift or has a silver lining—far from it—but it hasn’t stolen every gift that life gives.

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