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Holiday Mixed Feelings

Posted 12/16/2015

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  This is an over-worked topic, and it may be a stretch to bring it up on a cancer site. However, I suspect that most of us have mixed holiday feelings that pre-date our cancer diagnoses, and then adding the illness to the mix just makes it worse. Or larger. Or something.

  As some of you know, my wonderful husband is Jewish, so his exposure to Christmas had been limited to public viewings and the traditional Jewish Christmas of movies and Chinese food. He likes to tell the story of his preteen son writing a letter to Boston's mayor to ask about holiday decorations, specifically: "Where is the menorah?" Public decorations have come a long way since then, but it is still mostly Christmas-focused. For me, marrying a Jewish man was a wonderful excuse to dial down some of the decorating madness. In my town, many people, especially those who live, as we do, in very old houses, put an electric white candle in every window. It looks beautiful, and it is a major pain the neck. Even lovelier are the garlands twisted around porch rails or over doors, but I never attempted those. A wreath on the door does it for me. We do have a Christmas tree, but many years, I lament the work involved in putting it up and, worse, taking it down. It is always a real tree as the smell is a big part of the pleasure.

  Two side bar stories about Christmas trees and including a new Jewish husband: the first year he went tree shopping with us, he was perplexed why all the trees had their limbs sticking up, instead of naturally falling. In case you are baffled, too, it was because they were recently unwrapped, and the limbs had not had time to regain their normal positions. Second story: the rabbi whom he first approached about performing our wedding refused after hearing that yes, we have a Christmas tree.

  So I am drifting here and writing about the decorating and the chores related to Christmas. The work is overwhelming, but I have gradually found ways to make it somewhat more manageable. The most important way was having my daughters grow up; it is way easier to plan and celebrate Christmas with adolescents or young adults than with small children who are out of control the whole month. And a serious piece is the expense; it is very hard to sustain reasonable limits when all your children's friends seem to be expecting the equivalent of a pony. Now that our kids are grown, we limit our adult gifts to donations to charities of choice. The grandchildren, of course, still get presents--and the Jewish ones figured out very quickly that our house was the preferred place to be on Christmas morning. 

  Here is the cancer part, and this is what is central for many of us. When you are in treatment, the work and expectations are overwhelming. The best advice then is to minimize and assign jobs to others--all easier said than done, but really important. It helps to think carefully about what you like best about the holidays: the music, the food, the lights, whatever. Concentrate on those things and let some others go. Remind yourself several days a day that our own expectations are almost always the biggest. Others do not hold the bar as high as we do.

  It is, however, the feelings related to Christmas or other holidays or marker events that are so very intense for those of us who have had a cancer diagnosis. Is this my last holiday? Will I be here next year? And the pressure accompanying that fear, to make it perfect, is huge. It does not help much to remind yourself that no one know whether s/he will be here next year; we have a different, and more pressing, perspective. Trying to stay in the moment, to savor those lights or the eggnog or a card from an old friend, is one helpful strategy. Another is to practice denial. And the best, if you can do it, is to count your blessings.

  From comes this essay about these same themes:

Mixed Feelings During the Holidays?
By Tamara Shulman, Ph.D., F.A.A.C.P.

Most families are more of a mixed bunch of emotions than we see in the photo of matching outfits and happy smiles on holiday cards. Life cannot be photo-shopped, so in our own lives we see what really happens when the camera is off.
The holidays bring a mix of happiness and stress, hopefulness and memories, and mixed emotions for many of us. All of these feelings can combine in an especially bittersweet blend for women experiencing breast cancer. Coping with the real challenges as well as the joys of family gatherings and other celebrations can be an emotional roller coaster when you are dealing with your own illness.
Whether you are struggling with a new diagnosis, the medical issues of treatment, or ongoing illness, there are ways to make the holidays meaningful and special even as you navigate your personal way through the holidays with breast cancer.
First, acknowledge your own feelings. Anxiety, sadness, or anger at being upset at a “happy” time are all normal and need to be acknowledged. Expressing these feelings appropriately in different ways, such as confiding in a trusted partner or friend, joining a support group if you are not yet part of one, or even writing in a journal can all help. A breast cancer support group can be especially useful if you are feeling alone in a sea of holiday cheer. Only when you acknowledge and accept your upsetting feelings can you also be fully present to experience your genuinely happy feelings.

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