Cancer and the Holidays

Christmas was always a big production for my mom. I’m talking boxes upon boxes of green, red, and white knick knacks that replaced all of the other knick knacks around the house for a couple of months each year.

Gifts were extravagant, and cookies were baked for days and then piled into little Christmas tins for the neighbors, coworkers, family, and friends. Even in some of the difficult years, while my mom was also going to chemo, radiation, or whatever the treatment was at that time, she still made an effort to keep Christmas consistent.

The year that I came home from college for my holiday break and none of the decorations were out, the house felt cold and dull, and Celine Dion’s “So this is Christmas” wasn’t playing on repeat, was when I knew things had changed.

At that point my mom had been in and out of remission for nearly 13 years. What started as breast cancer was now Stage 4 Metastatic Breast Cancer – in other words, it has spread to other parts of her body. She was a single mom that cursed like a sailor yet carried herself with grace and poise. She knew when to be tough and when to be vulnerable.

That Christmas, my mom was struggling… my younger sister and I recognized that even though we were just 18 and 22 years old. It wasn’t going to be the same kind of Christmas we were used to, but we would do everything we could to get it close. We brought up all of the boxes from the basement one day while our mom was away. We decorated the house the same way she had every year prior, and put up the Christmas tree – ornaments and all. Needless to say, my mom was ecstatic.

Not long into that winter break, though, we ended up at the hospital with her – taken by ambulance. For a moment we thought that was it. That she would be leaving us. That we would be motherless. She cycled through her usual peppy self and the state of a person whose body was failing them. At one point, the exact time isn’t clear to me, she sent us home to our house full of Christmas cheer with individual letters in hand.

I don’t think I realized at the time that it was a goodbye letter, perhaps because she nonchalantly thanked me for everything I did to bring the holiday spirit into our home. But, she also told me how proud of me she was, and that she loved me. It was a simple letter, but I know it was written with heartfelt emotion.

Just a couple of weeks later we said goodbye to our mom, in our home. We held her hands and stayed by her side during her final hours. There aren’t words that can describe it more than that...

I can’t imagine going through that time without being able to say goodbye, or going through this time in my life – now with a daughter of my own – without being able to occasionally go through her things, and read her handwriting. I cherish the little pieces of her that she left behind, and that remind me she is still here… living through me, my sister, and my daughter.

The holidays with a loved one who is fighting cancer are hard. From a caregivers perspective - and a daughters perspective - I don’t think I realized at times how hard they were for my mom. I was young, and maybe I sometimes made it about me… Truth is, it’s hard on everyone.

Here’s the secret - it doesn’t matter what the gifts are or what’s being served on the table. It’s about the time spent with your loved ones. The quality time. The conversations around the Christmas tree or the fireplace. The snuggles under a blanket…

Make the holidays count by giving unconditional love to the fighter in your life, or the caregiver. Make memories that will last. Time is fleeting, but you’ll always have those.