A simple question. Unfortunately, there is no simple answer. Being affected by cancer this Christmas can come in many different ways:
You, someone you know or are close to, may have just been diagnosed, may undergo or finish treatment.
The cancer may be primary (diagnosed for the first time) or secondary (it has come back).
Things may not look too good; the prognosis is hopeful, or uncertain. Indeed, someone may have died, or this may be their last Christmas.
Experiences and circumstances are just too individual to make sweeping statements. However, what most scenarios have in common is uncertainty and anxiety. Even if treatment was a long time ago, the potential of a recurrence remains and you may wonder if / when and how it will happen again.
Often we take stock of our lives on anniversaries, Christmas and New Year. And so, this year, you may find yourself considering life with cancer - yours or that of another. What to do?
What is called for is our ability to endure suffering. In this day and age, we are used to instantaneous gratification and quick fixes. We are impatient, and struggle to contain our fears and difficult emotions. We all have our own methods. Some are less helpful than others, intended to help us cut-short and avoid the suffering (like drugs, drinking, eating, smoking and so much more). Anything to help us forget and drown the fear. But this way of coping only opens us up to more health risks, and may ultimately feed the cancer.
Sugar-coating the reality of serious disease and potential death is understandable. Avoiding and denying the issue sometimes happens in moments, when we believe we cannot cope any other way. Or we may live in denial all of the time. But this strategy may not work well around Christmas and New Year, when we are surrounded by cheerfulness (even if superficial) and celebrations. Denial and avoidance can become exhausting.
While we all have to find our own way of managing, here are some thoughts for the way:
If you are with someone who has cancer
You may wonder how to mark Christmas, if at all. How much is appropriate, perhaps for the sake of the children or other family members? You may secretly wish to have the old Christmas back with all the trimmings, but dare not, as you may feel guilty under the circumstances.
- Try not to second-guess what the other person wants. Having cancer does not mean we have lost our capacity and willingness to be involved and have a say.
- Ensure you have some time to yourself over the coming days, even if it is just a walk. Get out and visit friends. This is also your Christmas. It may feel like time stands still and you have to put yourself back to the end of the queue, but that does not necessarily help anyone.
If you are undergoing treatment
- If you can, try to remain involved in what happens around you. Express your views. You are the expert on what you need, and what you don't want - this Christmas and throughout your life.
- Try and avoid stress. Perhaps this is not the best time to please others to the detriment of your own health. Put yourself first.
- Depending on your diagnosis, this may be a good time to reflect and assess your life and make choices, changes and reprioritize the things that are really important and support your health.
If you have undergone treatment in the past
- Congratulate yourself for having come this far.
- Reflect on your anti-cancer strategy (eg nutrition, herbal, psychological, exercise, work). What has worked well for you, and what didn't?
- If you don't have a strategy or plan, what is stopping you?
- Acknowledge your fear of cancer. It is normal and can keep us on our toes, when we risk sliding back into unhelpful habits. Try and keep anxiety in check. It can become a serious health risk.
For all of us life is full of uncertainties. If you have cancer or any other life-threatening, life-shortening or terminal illness this uncertainty is more pronounced. It can crush us, if we let it.
I wish you energy, hope and peace in yourself this Christmas and beyond.
MA (Couns.Psych.), Reg. MBACP (Accred)