Coping With Breast Cancer During the Holidays

PJ Hamel Health Guide
  • No matter where you are in your cancer journey, Thanksgiving brings family, friends, football, food - and some special challenges.

    How do you cook turkey with all the fixin’s when chemo makes you want to flee the kitchen? You’re in the middle of radiation; just walking from living room to kitchen is a chore. How will you ready the house for 20 guests? Or you’ve just been diagnosed, and this is the first time you’ll see your extended family in person; how do you act?

    Here are 10 ways to make the best of Turkey Day 2010.

    Compartmentalize. Take all that cancer stuff, lock it up in a box, and stow it in the deep recesses of your brain. It’ll still be there; you just don’t have to think about it right now, on Thanksgiving Day.

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    Hold on, now; before you say, “I can’t,” think “I can.” The mind is a powerful thing; and YOU are strong.

    There’s a saying that goes something like this: if you’re struggling to navigate a raging river, get out and sit on the bank for awhile. It’s OK to rest; the river will continue to rage without you.

    Choose your attitude. Thanksgiving may remind you of what a great time you’ve had in years past, when you were healthy and felt good; and how crummy the day will be this year, when you have cancer and feel lousy.

    Well, the fact that you’re not doing so great this year doesn’t have to ruin Thanksgiving. Remember, there’s only one thing in life we can truly control – our attitude.

    You can choose to feel bad; to be angry, sad, resentful of other people’s health, and scared about the future. Or you can choose to feel – if not happy, accepting. Maybe this Thanksgiving’s kind of a bummer – so what? Next year will be better.

    And in the meantime, relax and try to enjoy anything you can about Thanksgiving 2010 – even if it’s only sitting quietly in a chair and watching those around you laugh, eat, and have fun.

    Prepare the Thanksgiving feast in a non-traditional way. If you’re in the throes of treatment, or have just finished, the idea of cooking a big Thanksgiving dinner is daunting. Well, guess what? Nowhere in the Guidebook to Thanksgiving does it say the meal has to be prepared, all or in part, in your home. Think takeout, and supermarkets.

    Some restaurants offer Thanksgiving “meals to go.” And many larger supermarkets, the ones with prepared foods sections, normally offer all the fixin’s for a nice dinner, including roast turkey breast, mashed potatoes, and cooked vegetables.


    Cranberry sauce (from the canned fruits aisle) and rolls (from the in-store bakery) are easily purchased, too. Around Thanksgiving, these same stores often put together a package deal for the typical components of a Thanksgiving meal – so keep your eyes peeled.

    Or, don’t cook at all. Speaking of food, here’s another option: Have your guests bring the entire dinner. If you’re having folks over for Thanksgiving, they’ll probably ask what they can bring. Take them up on it – including the turkey. It’s enough that you’re offering the venue; let your friends and family deal with the food. They should be more than happy to do so this year, while you’re trying to get your life back on track.

  • Relax; they’re family. You were diagnosed last summer, and this is the first time since then you’ll see many of your extended family members in person. Will it be awkward? Will they be uncomfortable, seeing you with a wig or bandanna, or looking washed out from radiation? What will you talk about?

    Here’s my advice: Your family will take its behavior cues from you, so act normal. Be matter-of-fact about the wig (“Darn, this can be so itchy!”); and if someone asks how you feel, be honest: “Radiation threw me for a loop – I feel like I’ve been run over by a Mack truck.”

    If you deliver this information in a casual, everyday way, it loses its power to cast a pall over the festivities. Sure, cancer is much more serious than your brother-in-law’s car problems; but just for today, act like it isn’t. Being low-key will help put everyone at ease – including you.

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    Find some quiet time. Take a short walk around the yard; get a breath of fresh air. Scope out a comfortable chair or bed in a quiet room, away from the crowd; close your eyes and relax. If you’ve got a way to carry some favorite tunes with you, bring ’em along; plug in your earphones, and let yourself ride the music for awhile.

    You’re fighting a battle, both emotionally and physically; and every day, no matter where you are, it helps to recharge your batteries with some personal R & R. Even if you’re enjoying the heck out of your big family celebration, take my advice – 30 minutes of rest mid-afternoon will help you make the most of this special day.

    Revel in the normalcy around you. If you’re in active treatment, you’ve no doubt been spending a lot of time at the hospital: in doctor’s offices, with a needle stuck in your arm in the chemo suite, with an X-ray machine sweeping across your naked chest…

    Today, you’re at home, or in someone else’s home. Little kids are tumbling around like they always do; teenagers are laughing and shooting hoops in the driveway. Adults are gathered in the kitchen, or around the TV, watching the Macy’s parade or football.

    Take a deep breath; let it out slowly; relax. This is life – the life you had before, and the one you’ll have again. Cancer is a rock in the path. Step over it; the path will still be there.

    Take off the Superwoman cape! For once, don’t worry about everyone else – let people worry about you. This is NOT a normal year, and the house doesn’t have to be spotless, the kids perfectly behaved, and the meal a triumph of gourmet cooking.

    If there was ever a time for you to lower your expectations of yourself (and raise them for those around you), this is it. People want to help; they really do. Let them.

    Put someone in charge of the turkey; ask for a volunteer kitchen crew to cook the side dishes, and another to clean up. Think of yourself as Queen for a Day – because you are.

    If you’re really sick – move the celebration elsewhere. Just because Thanksgiving has been held at your house since 1972, it doesn’t have to be this year. Change is good. If you know you’re simply not up to it, say so; don’t pretend you can do it all, because you can’t, and you’ll make yourself crazy trying.

  • Another plus about moving the feast elsewhere is that you can come late and leave early, if that’s what you can handle. And, once you’re home, there’s no recovery period for the house – no dishes, no vacuuming, no taking down tables and moving chairs…

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    Give thanks. You’re alive. And even if you can’t enjoy the turkey, make your favorite sweet potato casserole, or stay awake late into the evening reminiscing, those are all things you can look forward to next year.

    You have to believe that, once you’re through treatment, each day will be just a little bit better than the day before. And 365 of those “little bit better” days will definitely make next year’s Turkey Day a whole lot different than this year’s!

Published On: November 22, 2010