Gathering with family and friends, indulging in food and drink, giving to others—the things that many love about the holidays take on a new cast when you’re dealing with a cancer diagnosis. Perhaps you’re physically and emotionally exhausted, feeling (rightfully) self-focused, or uninterested in socializing. Or perhaps you’re determined to maintain your holiday routines and your good cheer. No matter what, cancer adds a layer of complication to a time of year that can already feel hectic and stressful, for all its joys.
We asked our Facebook friends to share their stories of coping with the holidays as survivors, and they offered wonderful, candid reflections. We wanted to share their thoughts here. We’ll be following up this post with two others on surviving the holidays: the second, about talking to extended family and friends, and the third, about traveling with cancer.
Many of our friends said it was important to them to be open and honest with family and friends. April says, “Those not familiar with cancer and those who have never dealt with it are truly uncomfortable, and I wanted people to know it’s okay not to know what to say or do. I opened my door and let anyone in that wanted to be there for me. And it was wonderful.” Similarly, Susan reports that after her diagnosis just days before Christmas, “What worked best for me was to surround myself with family and encourage them to talk to me. I didn’t want the elephant in the room to be ‘silence.’”
But others were less interested in sharing, especially if the diagnosis was new. As Jane describes, “I was diagnosed on Christmas Eve and didn’t tell anyone, except my boyfriend, so everybody could just enjoy Christmas. It was hard for me though and pretty much all I could think of. It was a quiet time for me.” Last year—the one-year anniversary of her diagnosis—was different, however: “The whole family celebrated getting through the past year. Many toasts, just for me!”
For Marilyn, who was nearing the end of her treatment during the holidays, the joy of the season was coupled with the fact that she was feeling positive about the outcome of her treatment: “The tumor was getting to the point of not being able to feel it anymore, and…I loved the thought that we were killing the cancer. Every night, I would set my intentions for the next day and tell myself that the next day would be a great day. As tough as it was, I was surprisingly happy!” Patty also describes her intention to stay positive: “I had just lost my hair (on Thanksgiving) and so I indulged in some really beautiful and festive scarves. I would wear them everywhere, and a lot of people thought I was just being stylish and had no idea I was in the throes of chemo. It helped me keep my sense of normalcy.”
Similarly, several friends mentioned the importance of humor. Carol notes, “My husband and my siblings were amazing, they kept me laughing and lifted my spirits. For me, maintaining a good sense of humor was huge.” And Christine tells the story of meticulously readying herself for Thanksgiving dinner after losing all her hair, only to quickly lose a false eyelash into the butter at the table, to much joking among her loved ones: “This we could do because I was on that side of things. If I was not, my people would not have joked. Just being around those loved ones made ALL the difference.”
The support of friends and family was crucial to everyone, though for many, accepting help was not always easy. Laura describes, “I was the caregiver to all so when others wanted to help me, I had to let my pride go.” And April echoes, “I’m a ‘do it myself’ person, and having people help me was uncomfortable at first, but I realized it was as much about them as it was about me. Having a family that loves and cares was solid. Huge.”
Similarly, Linda describes how her family took charge in a meaningful way: “My children redecorated my tree, because I just wasn’t into it. They made homemade decorations like when they were in grade school. Plus added some of their old ones from when they were kids. They also included ones for the grandkids. How moved I was when I walked into the family room.”
Shifting priorities and letting go of expectations was another common refrain among our friends. Patty noted the importance of allowing yourself “downtime.” Jeanne reminded us of the importance of keeping it simple: “order gifts online and let others cook,” she suggests. And both Susan and Linda noted that focusing on their spirituality was key for them.
Laura describes the beauty that can result from such a shift in focus and energy: “Finding the perfect gift, having the perfect table setting, etc., was no longer important to any of us. We all just focused on relationships with one another. It was a profound experience in my life.”
With their comments, our friends remind us how cancer can force us to focus on what’s truly important in our lives—a lesson that’s worth remembering at the holidays, not just for survivors, but for all of us.