Letting Go of Holiday Stress

PJ Hamel Health Guide
  • You’re a mom. A wife. A daughter. Maybe all three at once. And the holidays are your special province. You make the gift lists, get out the decorations, light the candles. You bake the special cookies, the ones your grandmother taught you. When the holidays roll around, you’re in charge. But cancer doesn’t give us a break just because it’s December. And this year, you’re in the midst of treatment, frantic about how you’ll get everything done in between bouts of utter fatigue and physical duress. Here’s some gentle advice on the subject.


    The most memorable part of my cancer treatment was the year I almost missed Christmas.

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    I’d finished chemo in late November. “Ah, DONE!” I crowed to myself. Proud that I’d never missed a day of work, aside from the actual infusion days. Happy that my hair would soon start to grow back. And ready to put aside all the cautionary behavior I’d pursued – staying out of crowds, avoiding fatigue – to keep myself safe when my white counts sank dangerously low.


    But one evening in mid-December, I found myself lying on the couch before dinner feeling fatigue so deep I could barely lift my head. My husband told me I didn’t look good; a thermometer revealed a fever. 


    I contacted the on-call oncologist “just in case” – and within hours found myself in the hospital, hooked up to an oxygen sensor, antibiotics dripping through an IV in my hand. 


    The diagnosis? Neutropenic fever, a classic side effect of chemo. 


    Wait a minute – I thought I was done with chemo. Well, no one told me its effects linger for a couple of months. I’d tempted fate by plunging back into “normal” life too quickly, and now I was paying the price.


    Christmas in the hospital.


    After several days of ineffective antibiotics, the infection clearly growing worse, the doctors decided I had pneumonia. I was put on oxygen; kept in a big, empty room. No one could visit without being gowned, masked, and gloved. No flowers (germs). My longed-for “normal” life ceased.


    At first I was so sick I didn’t care. But gradually, as the antibiotics finally took hold and I began to come back to life, I started to worry. Would I get out in time for Christmas? Maybe. But what about all the stuff that needed to be done BEFORE Christmas? Who’d bake the ginger stars, send the cards, wrap the presents? OMG – who’d make the traditional Christmas Eve feast? 


    The better I felt, the crankier I became. “When can I go home?” was my daily greeting to the doctor making his early-morning rounds. Three days before Christmas, no doubt sick of my whining, they decided to spring me – with the caveat that I’d have to continue with the oxygen, a tube up my nose, a clanging tank dragging along behind me 24/7.


    I went home to a house with familiar sights and sounds – the recalcitrant throw rug askew in front of the pantry; the smell of the cinnamon candles my husband liked – now strangely unfamiliar. I began to make to-do lists… then stopped and sighed, realizing that even at my best, there was no way I could pack three weeks’ worth of work into 3 days. And clearly, I was far from “my best.”


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    My husband sat down on the couch next to me as I stared blankly around the living room. Gradually I began to actually see things: a decorated tree with wrapped presents; familiar cardboard cutouts – Santa, Baby Jesus – in the windows. Friends had dropped off plates of homemade cookies and candy. 


    I hadn’t been home to clean and decorate, to bake and wrap, but guess what? It had all been done – by my husband, my son, and our friends. 


    Later that day a good friend dropped by with a gift. “ I have nothing to give you,” I apologized, embarrassed at standing there empty-handed as she handed me a beautifully wrapped box. 


    “You’re here,” she whispered in my ear, and gave me a hug. “That’s the best present you could give anyone this year.”


    Tears in my eyes, I hugged her back. She was right. I’d made it. I was out of the hospital, and home for Christmas. The rest – gifts, cookies, candles in the window – was just icing on the cake.


    “Begin by being,” a wise woman once told me. If all you can do during the holidays this year is simply “be” – trust me, for those closest to you, that’s plenty. There’ll be cookies to bake, cards to write, presents to wrap (and, yes, zeppoles to fry) next year. But for now – sit still, and open your eyes (and heart) to the love surrounding you. It’s enough. In fact, it’s exactly what you need. 


    Happy holidays!

Published On: December 10, 2013