'Tis the season to be jolly ...
But what if you've just been diagnosed with breast cancer?
Everyone is decorating their homes, shopping for gifts, buying up large for Christmas dinners and celebrations, and going to end-of-year parties … there's an air of fun, frivolity, and summer plans.
You have been given a diagnosis of breast cancer.
The impact of a diagnosis changes our perspective during the festive season. Instead of wondering whether to serve roast potatoes, or potato salad with the ham, it’s “How can I celebrate when I have breast cancer?”, “Will I feel well enough to do anything at all with my family?”, and “What is going to happen to me?” … and all the while the cheery emails and cards keep arriving, Great Aunt Maude and mad Uncle Charlie will be there any minute, the helter-skelter build up to The Big Day continues, and you’re left standing on the sideline, exhausted, frightened, panic-stricken, sad, and feeling almost every other emotion it is possible to experience.
First off, allow yourself to vent those feelings, thoughts, and emotions. People do at Christmas time, and while yours may not be so jolly, giving yourself permission to express them – laugh, cry, get mad – reflects that old maxim ‘better out than in’. Keep the communication going with those close to you.
Acknowledge that this Christmas will be different. You may not be able to keep up some of the traditions, and that’s OK. Christmas is often the time when we feel we must please everyone, make sure our family and friends are cared for, fed well, and enjoy themselves. Mad Uncle Charlie may need to stay with your sister for a bit.
Make a plan with family and friends, decide what you feel able to do, and what you aren’t up to doing. Having a plan takes some of the stress away, and also gives you a response when someone suggests what they feel you should be doing. Remember it’s about you and it is your right to choose the best approach that nurtures your well being and healing and does not cause more tension.
Accept invitations if you’d like to, and say that you may leave early, or not attend, depending on how you feel on the day.
Take time out each day to acknowledge what is happening. All too often over the holiday period there will be an invitation to “swallow it back” and “not rock the boat” for others. All very admirable, but a quiet half hour each day to focus in on your own experience will keep you grounded and sane.
Indulge, be kind to yourself, do something that you may not normally do. A diagnosis can make us feel angry – at ourselves, at God, whoever – and we can feel out of control. Self-nurture helps us take things back into our own hands and smooth the way a bit.
It is OK to say ‘no thank you’ if you’re not up to it, and ‘yes please’ to offers of help. Sometimes people don’t really know what is needed, so tell them. Perhaps they can assist with some pre-Christmas shopping, or lend a hand with the housework, meal preparation and clean up over the holidays.
Christmas and New Year are times to feel grateful for the blessings of family, friends, and many other aspects of life. Feeling gratitude may be tough after a diagnosis, but try to think of three things each day that you are grateful for. These thoughts can provide a small antidote for fear.
Even if you are not a religious person, attending a Christmas Eve church service (if you are well enough) can provide a private, quiet space, for you to acknowledge those feelings of grief, loss, fear, uncertainty. Taking time for yourself at home to meditate, or relax, can also offer a peaceful haven and some respite.
If you need to talk to someone, Auckland-based Breast Cancer Support has a toll free Help Line available every day throughout the holidays on 0800 273 222. Many of their volunteers have ‘been there too’ at Christmas and can offer practical and emotional support.
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