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Holiday Stress + Breast Cancer = A Challenge

By on December 22nd, 2011 Categories: The Breast Cancer Journey

It’s the most wonderful time of the year, croons Andy Williams over the store’s loud speaker. Really? I think. I’m sure the retailer wants me to agree with Andy, which might mean I’ll toss some more goodies into my cart. But I am not convinced. Buying stuff does not equal happiness, nor does piped-in music mean all is wonderful. I leave the store empty-handed and head to the lake for a walk.

My post-cancer self is sort of like that — she finds less appeal in acquiring stuff and is much more eager to spend time in nature, getting exercise and some psychological balance. I like this change — I wish I had made it without having to go through surgery, chemo, radiation, and fearing for my life. I’ve learned that contentment is not for sale at the mall or on the Internet, but discontent surely is. And it is all ramped up during the holidays.

In most cases, the holidays can’t stand up to their own hype. We, in general, expect too much of the season — family togetherness, a beautiful snowy landscape, peace, joy, exquisite decorations, and fancy cookies. Our own living, breathing Hallmark card — a pretty tall order under the best of circumstances. But when you’re dealing with breast cancer, the season of forced glee can be a heavy burden.

The sadness of what a diagnosis means, the fear for our future, worry about our kids, anxiety about what treatment will do to our bodies, terror about whether or not we can beat this disease, anger that we got sick in the first place — it can be a pretty potent stew of emotions on any given day. And we’re often simply sick and tired and not physically up to our usual, let alone somebody else’s expectation of holiday-level wonderful.

My first post-diagnosis Christmas came when my hair was a thin layer of fuzz and my energy was stuck at slug level. I was still at the point where I resented every woman I saw who did not have breast cancer, so I was a little raw physically and emotionally. The only thing I really wanted that year was normalcy, which I tried to achieve by making myself at least look somewhat like the old me. I was tired of wearing wigs, so I opted for a snazzy silk scarf for a family celebration at our home. Hair equaled ordinary to me, so I wanted to show off my new stubby growth. But, for the life of me, I cannot tie a scarf like a grown-up, so that little number kept falling down my forehead or slipping lopsidedly over one ear and then another. I looked like a drunken pirate. I considered ducking into my bedroom and throwing on a wig. But, ultimately I decided that this is the way I looked at this point in my life, and my family loved me despite that fact. Or, maybe even because of it.

This should be a season of love, a time for you to rebuild your health, which may be the only gift your family and friends want. Some thoughts on making the season more enjoyable for you:

Manage Expectations. What do you need from the holidays this year? Rest? Peace and quiet? Or lots of company? Talk this over with friends and family and determine what you can and can’t do — and realize it’s OK for this year to be different. I found that decorating the house perked me up, but I still left quite a few ornaments in the basement because I simply ran out of energy. Nobody noticed.

Avoid Holiday Pitfalls. Caffeine and alcohol can take us even farther into the doldrums. Both are plentiful during the holidays and both are harmful for our physical recovery. I generally follow a diet heavy on complex carbs — grains, vegetable, and fruits — supported with cheese, yogurt, fish, and shellfish. I use the Mediterranean diet as a model, but reduce the amount of wine it suggests because of the link between breast cancer and alcohol.

Keep Active. Walk, do yoga, swim, dance — anything that keeps your body active can help calm your mind. If you feel sadness descending, or you are getting anxious, get up and do whatever you can handle: walk to the mailbox, put on a yoga DVD, or hang up the Christmas wreath. Any activity will do. A friend of mine started taking piano lessons during treatment, bought herself an inexpensive keyboard, and hit the ivories when she started feeling low. She now plays pretty darn well.

Enjoy Nature. Spending time outdoors can increase your energy and reduce your anxiety. I actually enjoy bundling up in a warm coat, hat, scarf, mittens, and boots and going out into the wintry air. Too much hot inside air can be stifling. Fresh air is invigorating for body and mind.

Honor Your Emotions. I was sad and angry that first year, grieving my former life. Pretending otherwise would have been denying my own reality. Bottled emotions, like liquor, get stronger with age. And denying them just gives them more power over you. Your body, mind, and spirit have been through a huge change, especially if you have already started treatment, and that can turn your emotions inside out. Check Breastcancer.org’s overview of treatment side effects, which includes anxiety, depression, and fatigue.

Talk it Out. If the holidays are making you especially low, find a wise friend, counselor, minister, or anybody you can trust and sit down and talk about how you feel. Sometimes simply expressing yourself is the first step toward feeling better.

Know the Difference Between Sadness and Depression. Sadness is not a sign of weakness. It is a sign you are human. Yet, if you are so sad you don’t feel like doing anything or seeing anybody, and if it’s not getting any better, you might be depressed. Depression requires professional help. But before you take any additional medications, check with your oncologist to make sure those drugs will not interfere with your treatment, especially if you are on tamoxifen.

Laugh. Watch funny movies, hang around friends who make you laugh, do anything that can tickle your funny bone. Even try laughing yoga. The act of laughing itself can reduce stress. I come from a funny family in oh so many ways, but mainly we just enjoy laughing. I know that helped my recovery greatly. And if you’re going to look like a drunken pirate in your Christmas pictures, you sure should be able to chuckle about it.

This post was borrowed with permission from Pat's personal blog, Positives About Negative. Pat is the author of Surviving Triple Negative Breast Cancer and the co-author of The Magazine From Cover to Cover, also published by Oxford. She has been a magazine writer, editor, consultant, and professor for more than 35 years. She headed Drake University's magazine sequence for 22 years before taking over as director of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication in 2004. In May 2006, Pat was diagnosed with early-stage hormone negative breast cancer and retired from Drake in 2007 to focus on health writing and her health. She had surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation, and is now healthy, fit, and cancer-free.

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