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Being diagnosed during the holidays

From guest blogger Jane Bissell

'How can I celebrate Christmas when I’ve 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 …

You've been given a diagnosis of breast cancer, or you're in the middle of treatment.

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 arrive, the helter-skelter build up to The Big Day continues, and you’re left standing on the sideline.

First off, allow yourself to feel those 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. It's OK if you don't feel too Christmassy. Remember: you've been through a lot.

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 make sure our family and friends are cared for, fed well, and enjoy themselves, and this may not be possible right now.

A 'low key' Christmas may be on the cards. Make a plan with family and friends, let them know what you feel able to do, and what you aren’t up to doing.  Having a plan takes some of the stress away for everyone and also gives you space to enjoy as much of the festivities as you can. Be sure to have your say, choose an approach that works for you and is one that everyone can share and contribute to.

Accept invitations if you’d like to, and say that you may leave early, or you can choose not to attend, depending on how you feel. It's OK to say, 'No thank you'. 

Christmas comes with an overwhelming array of food. Eating can be challenging during treatment anyway so it may help to devise a strategy for navigating your way through all the goodies. Perhaps having a small meal before you go to a party, eating foods that suit you, and then selecting small amounts of the treats on offer at the party. Staying well hydrated and minimising alcohol can be a good way to go. 

There are often fewer illnesses around during our summer holidays but it's still a good idea to take precautions at parties or when traveling. Wash your hands frequently, wear a face mask if it makes you feel more comfortable, and steer clear of people who appear unwell. If you are having chemotherapy and your immunity is very low, it may be a better choice to decline invitations to large gatherings and just celebrate at home.  Remember you can always shop online for food and have gifts delivered. This can save a lot of time and effort when you're not feeling too flash. 

Take time out each day to acknowledge what is happening around you. A quiet half hour each day to focus in on your own experience will keep you grounded and sane. Try to keep up some exercise, even a couple of ten minute walks each day is good, or maintain your usual routines over the holidays. Exercise can help us cope with the extra food and drink we might indulge in over the New Year!

Be kind to yourself, do something that you may not normally do, give yourself a Chistmas gift, whatever that might be. A diagnosis can make us feel angry: at ourselves, at God, our family and friends, the cat.  We can feel out of control. Self-nurture can help us take things back into our own hands and smooth the way a bit, especially at a time when everyone around us is Christmas-happy and New Year-joyous.

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 help with some pre-Christmas shopping, or help with the housework and meal preparation over the holidays.

If you need to talk to someone, Breast Cancer Support is here every day over the holidays. Their volunteers have ‘been there too’ at Christmas and can offer practical and emotional support. If you need someone to talk to, call them on 0800 273 222 any time from 8.30am to 8pm. They take messages after 8pm and will call you first thing the following morning.

Jane Bissell is an Auckland writer  (author of Welcome to the Amazon Club) and regular blogger.