The Dying Light: Coping with Sadness During the Holidays

PJ Hamel Health Guide
  • There’s no disputing the fact that cancer and sadness go hand in hand. If you have cancer (or know someone that does), you’ll no doubt experience times of sadness – brief or prolonged – this holiday season. Here are some ways to cope.


    December is a dark month.


    Days are short, the sun taking its time appearing in the morning, rising only midway up the sky, then quickly slipping below the horizon in late afternoon. Many of us go to work and drive home in nighttime conditions, never seeing our homes in daylight until the weekend.


    This prolonged darkness can wreak havoc with your mood. Even if you haven’t been diagnosed with SAD (seasonal affective disorder), lack of light is a proven downer – you’ve heard of the dark night of the soul, right? Everything looks worse at 2 a.m.

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    When you’re dealing with cancer – whether as a patient, survivor, caregiver, or friend – metaphorical dark days are a given. Add to that the reality of December’s lack of daylight, and you’re talking a double dose of depression. Pile on the holidays – and the stark contrast between you and the happy America of all those TV ads – and you’ve got a recipe for emotional disaster. 


    What’s a normally cheerful person to do?


    Fight back, in ways both obvious and subtle. Here are five suggestions for coping with the sadness of cancer when holidays roll around.


    Listen to your head, not your heart.

    Much of cancer’s sadness comes from worry. Uncertainty over the future, fear of treatment, anxiety around finances and work, all feed into a seemingly endless cycle of worry. 


    First, try to reason your way out of worry. I like the “Then what?” exercise: My best friend is having a mastectomy. Then what? She’ll lose her breast and feel terrible. Then what? She’ll gradually recover; I’ll be there for her. Then what? She’ll hopefully be back to her normal routine in a few months.


    Pair this with busy-ness, and you may just get a handle on extreme worry. When your head just won’t quit cycling through bad thoughts, fill it with something else. Tackle a tough project, at work or at home. Go to the movies with friends; pick a complicated thriller or drama, something to engage your mind. Learn a new skill on your computer: photo editing, or setting up and using a Dropbox account. Keeping your mind occupied keeps worry at bay.


    Expose yourself to happiness.

    You’re miserable; of course you don’t feel like being with happy people. Their mood puts yours in stark contrast, reminding you of just how bad you feel.


    But it doesn’t have to be that way. Did your mom ever tell you to “put a smile on your face” when you were feeling cranky? It actually helps. Science proves that the physical act of smiling really does make you feel better. 


    So don’t avoid the Christmas tree lighting ceremony at town hall, or the groups of Girl Scouts caroling their way door to door – or even the shoppers crowding the merchants’ holiday open house downtown. Instead, join them. Try to embrace the good karma around you and become part of it, rather than using it as a yardstick against which to measure your own misery. Put a smile on your face – really. It can help.


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    Take every opportunity to coddle yourself.

    “Cancer’s not the time to keep a stiff upper lip,” my oncologist once said to me. And he’s right. If ever there was a time to lower the strict standards you set for yourself, it’s now, in darkest December. 


    If you’re undergoing treatment, and can barely eat, yet you resist that double-cream mocha milkshake because it’s not on your diet – forget the diet, for at least an afternoon. Those extra calories are worth the simple pleasure each sip will bring.


    Or how about the expensive winter hat you’ve been eyeballing at your favorite online outdoor store? Yes, it’s over-priced. But you keep thinking how good it’ll feel on your head, wrapping you in a warm halo of soft, fuzzy fleece and wool as you do errands and go back and forth to the doctor. Hey, it’s only money, right? You have to spend it sometime and, if not now – when?


    Look upward.

    If you believe in God, ask for help. Think of something you appreciate – something going right in your life – and say thanks.


    If you don’t have a faith life, look at the sky. There’s something about that vast expanse up there that can bring peace to even the most troubled soul. If the holiday hubbub indoors is getting you down, walk outside, and look at the stars. You’re an infinitesimally tiny part of the universe – but you ARE a part of this vast, wonderful system. Feel the life all around you, and let it embrace you.  


    Finally, when you look down again, seek the light. A candle in a window; a lit wreath on a bright red door. There’s always light somewhere; you just have to look for it.


    Look inward.

    We can’t control much in this life, but we can work on controlling our attitude. Examine exactly why you’re feeling sad – and try to talk yourself out of it. 


    All those holiday treats you love so much tasting like a tin can this year? Too bad; but next year, post-chemo, you’ll enjoy them even more. Your mom is dying, and there’s nothing left to do? Yes, it’s devastating. But her passing means an end to her pain; and (again, if you have a faith life) she’s simply going ahead on the path; you’ll catch up to her later.


    Finally, the very best thing to remember about sadness at the holidays is this: nothing lasts forever. January will come, with its bright blue-and-white skies and longer days. 


    And every step of the cancer journey – yours, or your loved one’s – is one step closer to a hopefully healthy (and happy) conclusion.

Published On: December 07, 2014