• Jason Howell

The Unwelcome Holiday Guest

There is a lot of build-up and excitement to the holidays, Thanksgiving and Christmas especially, and lots of planning and preparation that are involved; planning out your meals, starting your shopping, putting out decorations, etc. And people in the workforce, depending on their jobs, may have special needs pertaining to their employment, whether it be a restaurant that is open on Thanksgiving or a store that has Black Friday specials.

For my own part, I had already been singing Christmas carols, already wearing Christmas t-shirts, and, thanks to a holiday promotion for employees of my job, I had already done most of my Christmas shopping.

But as in life, a wrench thrown in can bring everything to a screeching halt. In the middle of November, my family got hit with the biggest wrench that could have been thrown at us, when a trip to the emergency room yielded that most terrible word that affects too many people in our world today: CANCER. My mother was diagnosed with uterine cancer stage 4 which has metastasized in her lungs.

At the time I am writing this, Mom has completed her first round of chemo. It is too soon to know how it will work on her. The outlook at this time is not good, but the doctors are doing everything they can to help her.

Moving forward

Before I go any further, I will go on and say that the following is primarily geared toward families of cancer fighters, and while the takeaways are fairly universal, as we are in the holiday season, it is geared toward a holiday focus.

The prospect of cancer in a loved one, especially advanced stage, can devastate an entire family and cast the darkest cloud over the holiday season. Aside from the struggle of a loved one fighting the disease, there is the unshakeable fear going into the holidays that this will be the last one you share with them.

When dealing with a loved one’s cancer diagnosis, remember these important points:

Be honest!

Do not try to pretend this isn’t happening. Denial does not make problems go away. Your loved one needs your full support in this fight, and that starts with an understanding and acceptance of what is going on.

For my own part, I have posted detailed updates on Facebook to my friends and shared them on my other relatives’ timelines. Some friends were surprised by my openness about what is going on, but I felt it necessary so the people who know my mom are aware of what she is facing and because she needs all the thoughts and prayers she can get.

On the flip side, don’t grieve someone before they are gone!

This advice was given to me by a supervisor and dear friend who lost his own wife to cancer. If you grieve someone before they are gone, they will recognize it. It will adversely affect them. Yes, it’s hard. I know you’re scared for your loved ones. They are too. But what kind of life is it for them if every waking moment everyone around them is weeping as if they are already gone?

This doesn’t mean you can’t cry. But you can’t let your tears blind you to your loved one’s needs. You can’t let your fear and sorrow get in the way of doing everything you can to help your loved one fight.

Keep living!

This is something my mother made loud and clear to my family. A loved one’s cancer diagnosis will force many changes, but you should not sacrifice any semblance of a life for yourself.

Aside from the fear, your loved one has when faced with such a serious diagnosis, there is a guilt they cannot shake over being a burden on their family. If the family completely gives up everything else that they have, that only makes it worse. In the worst-case scenario, this could eventually build resentment in the family.

And if, God willing, your loved one beats the odds, and months turn into years, what will you have done in that time?

Your loved one wants to see you living your lives, having lives, during this difficult time.

Now you do have a loved one who is sick and needs proper care and supervision. You will need to make some adjustments, whether it be time off from work in order to take them to doctors’ appointments, not going to all-night parties every Friday, changes in diet or lifestyle to ensure your loved one is surrounded by a healthy environment, and staying up late with them when they are in pain or need medicine.

But having made the necessary arrangements to ensure your loved one’s care, you should allow yourself the opportunity to have some form of release, of normalcy. If you have other relatives in the household with you who can watch your loved one, or friends you can call to house-sit, go out and have lunch with friends, accept that Christmas party invitation, go out and catch a movie, and so on.

If you can’t get away from home, there’s still plenty you can do. Binge-watch stuff on Netflix (with your loved one especially), finish that home repair project, and make time for some of your hobbies. If you don’t have a hobby, get one; as written in 1898’s volume 3 of The Canadian Teacher, “The average man is at a loss how to spend a holiday, but the man with a hobby finds in a holiday a veritable fountain of delight.”

But the important thing is making sure you are still able to find pleasure in life. In my own household, this means maintaining our involvement with our church, including planned participation in the upcoming Christmas pageant. It means going to the staff Christmas party at my job. It means the Black Friday trip I took to the comic book shop. It means watching with my mom those fun and cheesy Christmas romance movies on Hallmark and Lifetime. And, as I am drafting this article, it means my family and I decorating the Christmas tree as Mom supervises from the comfort of the sofa.

Fight for the future!

When dealing with a serious diagnosis, you and your loved one may be focused on all the things they are going to miss. Use that as motivation. Don’t treat this as the last Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, New Year, birthday, etc. Treat this as the first.

Focus on the goals you have to achieve. Focus on what your loved one wants to accomplish and the things you want to do that you want to share with them.

Fight for every moment. Fight for every memory. And always remember the words of the famous poem by Dylan Thomas: “Do not go gentle into that good night. / Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

Too often, it takes being confronted with our own mortality to remind us that nothing in life is certain. We must make the most of every day. And when a loved one is fighting cancer, whatever time they have left, whether it be years or months, make that time worth living.

And to everyone who is affected by cancer, during the holidays and all year round, remember that you are not alone!

And to my mother, I want you and the world to know how much I love you and that I am with you every step of the way.

To learn more about cancer and ways you can get involved, visit the American Cancer Society's website.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays.