What Cancer Can't Take away This Holiday

Phyllis Johnson Health Guide
  • Will cancer change your holiday table this year?  Sometimes it seems that cancer means CAN’T--can’t travel, can’t cook, can’t get over a loss.  Whether you are the patient or the relative, breast cancer may affect your holidays, so think ahead about the best ways to cope.


    Can’t travel? All over the world people pack up for major holidays.  They go to the towns where they grew up, or they go to Grandma’s new condo in Arizona.  Everyone wants to be together.


    I had just moved a thousand miles away from home when I was diagnosed with breast cancer, so I was looking forward to spending time with my parents and sisters for Christmas when I finished treatment.  I counted out the days for radiation on my calendar, and it looked like I could just make it.  Somehow I failed to count the weekends when the treatment center was closed.  My radiation would continue until mid-January, and I couldn’t take off for Maryland without jeopardizing the success of my treatment.  I was devastated.

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    Our solution--my parents traveled to me.  It wasn’t quite the same as going home, but it was the best we could do in the circumstances.  I went to radiation every day except for Christmas Day itself, and the rest of the time, we enjoyed a low-key celebration together.


    If you are the relative of a breast cancer patient, you need to be understanding about the limitations that treatment may place on her.  Fatigue may make travel difficult.  Her doctor may have advised her to stay away from crowded airplanes because her immune system is low.  Although she may have a little bit of flexibility in scheduling treatment, most of the time she will need to be in her doctor’s office on specific days if her treatment is to be successful.  Your sister or mother may sometimes be a bit of a prima donna, but don’t give her a hard time if she says she is not up to coming to your house this holiday.  Unless you have had exactly the same treatments for the same kind of cancer, you have only a vague idea of what she is going through.  Support the decisions she makes about whether she can travel this year.


    If you are the patient, be realistic about your energy levels and what is involved in traveling.  You may well be able to manage, but don’t be afraid to tell your family that this year you will stay home and rest.  If you are up for having some of your family members travel to you, it’s OK to put them up in a hotel so that you can get your sleep.  If getting together this year during treatment just isn’t possible, maybe you can plan a get together at a different time of year.


    Can’t cook?  Food is a huge part of most people’s holidays.  Since most breast cancer patients are older women, many take great pride in hosting the annual celebration.  This year let someone else bring the food.  Sure, no one else makes pumpkin pie as good as yours, so maybe it’s time to share the recipe with your granddaughter and teach her how to do it.   If doing the cooking is important to you emotionally, simplify your menu and make as much as possible ahead of time.


    Your family wants to be with you, so they will understand if you decide to buy a prepared dinner at a grocery store or restaurant.  If you are going to have energy to read to your grandchildren, you may need to shift some of the cooking to someone else.  That goes for the decorating too.  In fact, this might be a good year to have the big meal at someone else’s house.  Then you can show up for dinner and leave when you get tired.


    Relatives can help out by offering ahead of time to make the meal potluck or to host the host gathering.  Mama may feel she would be letting everyone down by suggesting a change, so it is up to others in the family to find tactful ways to support her.

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    Can’t get over a loss?  Forty thousand families in the United States will be celebrating their first holiday without their family member who died from breast cancer this year.  Each family will have a unique way to cope.  Some families will want to do everything just the same as always, but for others, familiar rituals will feel too painful.  


    I found it surprising when a friend talked about going on a cruise the Christmas after his father’s death, but last Thanksgiving I understood the impulse a bit better.  My mother died just before Thanksgiving, and the thought of a traditional turkey dinner was just too much.  My sisters and I ate lasagna with our spouses between sorting pictures and cleaning out Mom’s apartment.


    In her article “Healing Rituals for the Holidays,” Elaine Tiller says, “Most of us have special traditions and rituals that we do on holidays-decorating the house, cooking special foods, having a special family meal together, having special music and dance, lighting of candles, and many more. After a death some of us will want to continue these rituals just as we've always done them, some will adapt them and make them somewhat different, and others will want to create new rituals. We all have to find our own way. Hopefully families will talk and negotiate around this to find what is right for the individuals and the family as a whole.”  She suggests creating rituals such as leaving an empty chair at the table for the missing person or decorating a holiday tree with homemade ornaments that symbolize Mom.  


    Too many of the breast cancer patients who die this year will leave young children or grandchildren.  It will be especially important to show them a way to express their grief. Maybe they would like to donate a poinsettia in her honor to decorate the sanctuary for Christmas.   Maybe they would like to give some of their pocket money to plant a memorial tree.  Consider setting aside a special time to share memories, maybe in a meal before the main holiday dinner.  


    Making something tangible is a good activity for children.  That’s why I like Tiller’s idea about ornaments for a tree, or children can draw pictures of what they liked doing with Grandma to decorate the house.  They can plan a way to contribute to a breast cancer charity or a charity that their mother supported.  The important thing is to acknowledge the loss and give the children a way to show what they feel.


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    Whatever the holiday, we need to focus on its symbolic importance.  We are thankful for life, light, and saving grace in our midst.  The trappings of food and decorations can be pared down so that we have energy to heal from illness or grief.  You can find creative ways to be together for the holidays without exhaustion.  You can remember those you have lost.  This holiday may be different, but cancer can help us focus on what we have today and what we are building for the future.  



    Tiller, E. “Healing Rituals for the Holidays.”  Montgomery Hospice.  2008.  Accessed 22 Nov. 2013 http://www.montgomeryhospice.org/grief-and-loss/coping-with-grief/healing-rituals-for-the-holidays.

Published On: November 22, 2013