If I had custom ornaments made to commemorate my last three Christmases they would read:
Christmas 2018 — “The one where I had cancer.”
Christmas 2019 — “The one where I had cancer… again.”
Christmas 2020 — “The one where I had a stem cell transplant in a pandemic.”
Needless to say, the holidays have looked very different for me over the past few years. Prior to my diagnosis I lived through a total of twenty-seven Christmases, but none of them belong to me now. They belong to the person I was before cancer, and that person is gone.
The holidays are a place where old wounds reopen yearly. The weight of the ones we have lost feels especially heavy. Imagine feeling the grief of a loss, but the loss is…YOU. As you take out each ornament to decorate your tree, you suddenly have a flashback. A flashback to her. The girl we lost to cancer. Me. I have an urge to smash that ornament because it represents someone, something, that is gone and isn’t coming back.
I can’t do that though. There are still expectations from others to pretend to be… her.
As a mother, I wanted to create holiday traditions for my daughter. I didn’t know the traditions would include mommy’s hair in various stages of regrowth and loss. I didn’t know it would involve explaining why mommy is always too tired to play. I didn’t know it would involve cancer.
Although the holidays are widely considered the most wonderful time of the year, the truth is it’s the most stressful too. Much more for cancer patients than the average muggle. You may think it would be the opposite — that we would put emphasis on moments rather than presents. However, cancer patients have a little voice in their head that keeps saying that this could be their last one. You better make it perfect.
We feel immense guilt when we don’t live up to the standards we place on ourselves. Which is a familiar feeling because society places a lot of expectations on cancer patients in general. According to the average “cancer movie” all of us should start a nonprofit, climb Mount Everest, or fall in love with the handsome patient across the hall. Life isn’t a movie, unfortunately, and so most of us will sit on the couch watching Home Alone for the tenth time — alone. Also, I’ve never seen anyone under the age of 65 at my cancer center, so there’s no cute boys across the hall to fall in love with.
So what DO the holidays mean to me now? Not much.
I hate to be the one to say it, but cancer made me jaded. It made things lose their sparkle. It made the Christmas lights lose their twinkle. It made me lose my twinkle in many ways…
I often see my life before cancer as almost existing in sort of a bubble. A bubble where “at least I was young and healthy”. Even if the world was crumbling around me — AT LEAST I had my health. I should have known it was too good to be true when the sentence started with “at least”…
Inside this bubble existed a zest, or a sort of magic, for events such as the holidays. A magic that I lost. A magic that I desperately want back.
I was diagnosed in October right before my daughter’s third birthday. Unfortunately, my “cancerversary” will forever mark the start of the holidays for myself and my family. I remember the first Christmas of my diagnosis year very clearly. I was approximately four chemo treatments in, and my hair was hanging on by a thread. I had more loose hair on my Christmas tree than loose tinsel. However, I was determined to make things “normal” for my daughter, for my husband, and for myself (ha)… With neutropenia and all — I decided to book us three tickets to Disney World’s Christmas party. I spent 45 minutes trying to find a hair accessory to cover my ever-growing bald spot. I pushed myself to walk around the park without taking breaks, although I had just received chemo the week prior. I forced myself to smile in selfies with my husband. I forced myself to pretend everything was okay when it wasn’t. I hate looking at those pictures now.
So I believe this article is a little… um, depressing so far, so let’s talk about the GOOD. Good cancer? No, not that. The good parts of the holidays for me now. The good parts of my life now.
I care a lot less about impressing people who don’t matter.
Now I focus on what the important people in my life think. For example, a few weeks ago my daughter and I made an unplanned trip to the mall. I didn’t realize it, but Santa was already there to take photos with the kids. My daughter asked if we could go take a picture with him. I started to say no, because we weren’t prepared for it. She had tropical leaves all over her pants with a shirt that we found in the back of the drawer. It didn’t exactly scream Christmas like all the kids who walked past in their red plaid outfits. I stopped myself and thought — no. It doesn’t matter what she’s wearing. The memory is what matters. Spending time with my daughter is what matters. Not a curated outfit and a pretty square on Instagram.
What I want you to take away from this article is that you shouldn’t wait for the holidays to enjoy life. Do not wait until the holidays to go home to see your family. Don’t wait for a special occasion to wear that new dress. Don’t wait for Christmas to let your loved ones know how much you care about them. Keep the spirit of the holidays alive in each day, but let go of the pressure. It’s okay if you didn’t get those Christmas cards ordered. It’s okay if you didn’t cook the perfect holiday meal. As long as you are happy and content, it’s okay. The magic of the holidays isn’t found in a present box — it’s found in the little moments. I’m proud of you. I’m proud of us. We make our own magic.