The Holidays from a Breast Cancer Survivor's Perspective

PJ Hamel Health Guide

    My street, blanketed in snow this morning.


    It snowed this morning, a soft, gentle storm, but one that nonetheless left me with a copious amount of shoveling. Sleet and freezing rain are predicted for later today, and there’s nothing quite so back-breaking as shoveling a foot of snow saturated with a couple of inches of rain. The trick is to shovel just as the snow starts to change to sleet; that way you get all the snow and none of the heavy water.


    Today, I timed it just right.

    And so did a lot of other seasoned shovelers. As I cleared the walks and deck, three sets of stairs, the paths to compost bin and birdfeeder, I could hear the muffled scrape and clang of metal shovels hitting asphalt all up and down the street. Yellow town trucks, their tire chains jingling, plowed the edges and tight corners the big state plows hadn’t reached.

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    Sleet hissed down, rattling against the windows of my house as I trudged back and forth with my ergonomically correct shovel. (Yes, since snow-shoveling is a major pastime here in northern New England, we have a variety of fancy shovels from which to choose.) I was tired, I was sweating, but I was happy: happy to be moving, bending and lifting, my muscles aching as I tossed snow over the deck railing. I was breathing hard, the 14°F air searing my lungs.


    And I felt good.


    Exactly six years ago this week, I lay in a hospital bed, barely able to breathe. An oxygen mask covered my mouth and nose; antibiotics dripped into my arm. After 18 weeks of chemotherapy, 18 weeks of not giving in, never giving up despite burning mouth sores, a bald head, and fatigue that made even climbing a set of stairs feel like hiking the Appalachian Trail, I’d come down with pneumonia.


    I lay on my back, still and white as the snow covering the New Hampshire hills outside my window. Snow shoveling was the last thing on my mind; I just wanted to be able to breathe normally again, and have enough energy to walk more than a few steps without shaking and stumbling.


    Most of all, I wanted to go home for Christmas. But first I had to survive pneumonia.

    After days and nights of drifting in and out of consciousness, the fever raging, I caught a break; the antibiotics suddenly kicked in. The fever abated. I could eat again; I got stronger.


    And the doctor told me that as soon as I could walk in a circle around the nurse’s station for 10 minutes, pushing my oxygen tank, I could go home.

    I made it home December 22, just in time to watch my teenage son decorate the tree. And none of the gifts I received that Christmas were as sweet as the simple pleasures of being able to breathe without struggling, sleep without an IV tangling around my arm, and know that I had beaten the cancer demons once again.

    Now, every December, I remember those dangerous days when I nearly lost the battle. Despite having to drag an oxygen tank with me everywhere I went, I enjoyed that Christmas like no other.


    When you’re handed back the life you thought you might lose, everything glows just a little bit brighter, doesn’t it? Wherever you are on the cancer path, take a moment to enjoy today: this moment, right here, right now. Where there’s life, there’s hope.


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    And when you’ve been through the very darkest days of cancer, it’s a lesson you'll remember – always.

Published On: December 17, 2007