Celebrating post-cancer life events
Hester Hill Schnipper, LICSW, OSW-C Program Manager Emeritus, Oncology, Social Work
SEPTEMBER 11, 2019
Life feels even more precious after cancer. We appreciate the daily pleasures, and we especially value the celebrations and marker events. Many of us identify future important days, graduations or weddings or babies, as goals. We are determined to be healthy and present for these milestones. Once a particular day has past, we pick another to anticipate.
These special days can, however, be challenging. While sitting at a table surrounded by our family or singing Happy Birthday, a small voice in our heads whispers: Maybe this is my last Thanksgiving. In the days leading up to the event, we may obsess about all the details, forming a Norman Rockwell-like image in our heads. It can be tough to remember that those perfect images only exist in paintings. Looking ahead motivates us to keep going, but anticipation can also create challenges and extra stress. In addition to worrying about a menu or what to wear, we have to contend with our intense feelings. Here are some strategies to enhance the pleasure and reduce the stress:
- Be realistic and start small. If your daughter is five, begin with imaging her start at first grade, not with imaging her wedding. You want to accumulate memories and build on each, hoping for a lifetime collection.
- When thinking of a special event as a future goal, create a detailed picture in your mind's eye. Imagine the weather and who is with you and even what you are wearing. Once you get there, take a real picture and keep it somewhere you often see it. Then begin to consider the next goal.
- Don't overlook more general happy moments. Instead of focusing on a July 4th cook out, think about the delights of summer in general.
- There are always opportunities to create smaller celebrations and acknowledge the little joys of your life. Consider candles on the dinner table or bubble baths.
- Remind yourself that the anticipation is often more stressful than the actual event. This is certainly true when something unpleasant is lurking in the future, but it holds with happy times, too.
- Consider sharing your feelings with someone in advance. If you have talked with your partner or dear friend about your worries, she can be your ally that day and help if you need a break or a hug.
- Remember that the day is likely to be bittersweet. Or, as one of my patients, says sad/sweet. You probably can't completely eliminate the bitter part, but you can focus on the sweetness.
- Lower your expectations. This does not need to be, and probably won't be, the very best Christmas ever. The joy is in being there.
- Remind yourself that you are here now, that you are present in the moment, and that you are very likely going to be at next spring's Easter or Seder table.
- If you are the one who is responsible for planning the party, please delegate. It would be a real shame to be too overwhelmed with busy work or fatigue to truly enjoy yourself.
- You are always entitled to experience all of your feelings, good and bad, sad and scared and happy. Tears can mix with the laughter.