Once again it’s that time of year where friends, family, and colleagues get together to celebrate the holidays, imbibing in such abominations as eggnog and snacking down on abhorrent recipes of fruitcake.
I’m still convinced that people who enjoy eggnog and fruitcake are perpetuating a comedy bit, but to each their own!
In seriousness, holiday celebrations can be extremely challenging for people living with cancer or with family members that have the disease.
How can something so enjoyable be tainted with the nastiness of cancer? More importantly: how can we reframe the situation so that the nastiness doesn’t prevail.
During the holidays in 2015, my mom was entering the terminal stage of her protracted experience with Stage IV colon cancer. She’d been in and out of the hospital for various things, was receiving home care a couple of times a day, and was generally confined to a hospital bed or reclining chair, tethered by an oxygen machine which kept her oxygen levels within a margin of normalcy.
It was painfully obvious that we would be spending our last Christmas together.
The reason I paint the picture is to remind readers that there are many families who will experience similar as they converge to share what they know will be one of, if not their last, family gathering.
My advice to those who find themselves here: Talk.
Talk to your loved one. Reminisce. Share in your favourite memories. Remind them how much they’ve had an impact on your life. Tell them you love them.
Don’t let the moment slip by due to paralyzing anticipatory grief.
There are still ways to enjoy those final moments and to make them enjoyable for the people you care about.
Whether you’re the one facing down your own last hurrah, or whether it’s someone you love, try as you may to find some enjoyment in the small moments.
It’s a big ask, I know. But it’s one way to assert a smidge of control over an otherwise uncontrollable situation.
Full acknowledgement here that there are situations where the aforementioned isn’t possible. Broad strokes. Cancer is complex.
First Christmas after NED
No evidence of disease! NED!
It sounds great, right?
Getting through treatment. Putting cancer behind you. Stepping out in to the world as the person you were before the disease. Having your head screwed on right so that you can focus on cheesy movies and overindulging in roasted foods.
Except, not really.
Forgive me while I doff my rose-coloured goggles.
Something that’s extremely difficult to convey to cancer muggles (no offence) is the lasting impact that cancer has on a person’s psyche.
I. Am. Here.
It’s not to say that the holidays are unenjoyable. The opposite is true: I’m really looking forward to getting together with people.
But I think I’ve found a metaphor that can help explain why this time of celebration might be coloured with a bit of despair.
Consider the metaphor of life as a book. The analogy of time as chapters carries through pretty elegantly.
NED buys some additional chapters. But nobody is sure how many. Nobody knows if those chapters will extend for months, years, or beyond.
The trepidation around the holidays comes not from the thought that “this is my last Christmas,” but that it could be one of them.
There’s the anticipatory grief that there may be holidays where the people I care most about won’t have me around.
But the important thing is to fill those chapters with joy wherever possible.
For the NED crowd, this is where mindfulness comes in.
Fear not the unknown. It may be full of more joy as you write the pages that will comprise your life’s story.
The unknown is a recurring theme for folks living with cancer.
So, it’s important to find joy in the known.
Enjoy the food if you can.
Enjoy your friends and family.
Enjoy the lights, candles, and questionably cheesy movies.
Enjoy knowing that, at the very least, you can fill some pages of your book of memories with moments that will be cherished by the people you care about. Regardless of how many pages or chapters you have left, excerpts of your life make it into the stories of others.
And that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it?