December 21, 2018. Winter solstice. It was the darkest day of the year, and also turned out to be one of the darkest days of my life. The day I was told I had breast cancer.
I received the news over the phone from a doctor I barely knew. He had previously told me that I had “nothing to worry about” and that I was “too young for breast cancer.” Learning that those statements were untrue, I felt bombarded, like my life was spinning completely out of control. I figured whatever I had planned for the day was screwed, so I retreated to the bedroom and closed all the blinds. I wanted to black everything out.
I was curled up in bed when my nurse navigator called a short while later to tell me what would come next. Hearing the list of tests and treatments I’d have to start immediately, it became clear that I’d be giving up all plans for the foreseeable future and surrendering to a new and unfamiliar path.
In the following days, after making the rounds of calls to break the not-so-happy news to loved ones, I took up a post on the couch and queued up some of my holiday favorites: Love Actually, Home Alone… I even gave in to my past years’ resistance and watched Die Hard. (Conclusion: YES, I am Team “Die Hard is a Christmas movie.”) While I absolutely did not feel any kind of holiday spirit, immersing myself in some seasonal entertainment helped me escape the very dark thoughts and feelings of my new reality.
I was thankful that this entertainment made the next few days pass quickly, because I essentially went through the motions of Christmas to get it over with. New Year’s Eve – which had previously been one of my favorite holidays – was now the day I had a PET scan for staging. I would be ringing in 2019 with port placement surgery and my first dose of chemo on January 2nd. The start of the new year marked my venture into an entirely different life. I would never be the same.
Each year, when December rolls around, I flash back to the phone call that changed everything. The unfamiliar lists of doctors and medications, scans and procedures – which by now are like an additional language I’ve become fluent in. The abrupt identity shift from healthy and active thirty-something to Cancer Patient. Days spent hiding under the covers, where I could escape into dreams in which my subconscious did not yet know I had cancer.
I cannot separate my diagnosis memories from the holidays. And I don’t actively try to, either. As I navigate the world of cancer survivorship, I recognize my need to acknowledge these events and the feelings that were triggered by that phone call on December 21, 2018. I think about who I was then and everything I didn’t know yet about myself and the world around me.
I have never had a picture-perfect life or family, and it’s become more complicated since my cancer diagnosis. This has always made the holidays hard. It can be difficult to tune out the messages our society sends us about how the holidays should look and feel. I often feel alienated, like there is some kind of magical Christmas experience that I will never truly understand.
During the holidays, I need time to grieve. Although I’ve been making progress taking care of myself in survivorship, I still sometimes mourn the person and life that existed before. I also mourn the people and relationships that have changed or are gone. Before cancer, life was simpler, and my mind and body weren’t so occupied by worry and ailments.
I also recognize the end of the year as a time to take stock of things. How have I adapted to my situation this year? What have I learned? In what ways am I actively shaping a life that is right for me in this moment? I no longer want life to happen to me. I can set my own priorities and make clearer choices about how I spend the time and energy I have.
So, what is something I’ve done this year? Begrudgingly, I accepted that I really needed to do something about all the long-term side effects of chemo, surgeries, and radiation. For a long time after treatment ended, I felt like I was at sea. I had no clear sense of what came next or how to take care of myself now that I didn’t have detailed instructions and protocols. I’ve been experiencing all these symptoms that are known to be caused by treatment, but no one but me can ensure I do anything about them.
Although spending even more time in hospitals and facing a higher stack of medical bills is not exactly my idea of a good time, taking responsibility for my own health allows me to more fully enjoy life as a whole. Despite the very real physical and mental aftermath of cancer treatment, I truly feel that I have a much better sense of agency about my own well-being. This is my life, so how do I want to experience it?
This holiday season, I will inevitably allow myself a few moments of sadness to recognize the pain I’ve experienced and certain parts of my life that I wish were different. But I also acknowledge that it is what it is. Life is always changing, and over time we will all experience a spectrum of joys and sorrows. Reflecting on my progress, and paying more attention to how I take care of myself, is something I’ll happily carry over into the new year.