The winter holidays – from Thanksgiving to New Years – are normally a time of relaxation and joy. Sitting around watching sports and parades, feasting together and exchanging gifts with family and close friends are what most people have come to expect from this happy time of year. For those undergoing cancer treatments, however, this time of year can bring with it tremendously uncomfortable feelings. Specifically, many of the usual challenges of cancer treatment can be exacerbated by what we have all come to expect from this festive time of year.
First off, the mere fact that one needs to be at or admitted into the hospital during the holidays can make that visit more significant than others. This may be due to the notion that the holidays are for spending time at home with family, not at the hospital with nurses and needles. Secondly, a lot of cancer treatments necessitate that the patient avoids contact with groups of people. This is again contrary to what most people generally expect from the holiday season. Being isolated in late July, for example, seems to be less problematic or depressing than being isolated on Christmas Eve; again, the reason being that we have come to expect integration during the holidays and not meeting that expectation can be depressing. A third issue, which probably affects Adolescents and Young Adults (AYA) to a greater degree than other categories of patients, is the effect of social media at this time. An AYA sitting in the hospital scrolling through their Facebook, Twitter or Instagram feed will probably notice many of their friends hanging out together on break or coming home for the holidays if they didn’t live in the area anymore. These issues simply boil down into a common expression: FOMO (short for ‘Fear of Missing Out’ for those who don’t know).
Cancer patients are always experiencing FOMO, and this feeling can be exacerbated during the holidays. For AYA patients, this challenge may be even harder to overcome because of our constant social media usage. Despite all the trouble that a patient might face over the holidays, there is a lot to be gained from looking back on these tough times.
Although AYA patients might miss out on parties with extended family and friends, rarely are they ever receiving treatment without a parent, guardian, sibling or friend by their side. These dark moments can help to illuminate who it is that really cares about you. Even if friends and family can’t be in the hospital during treatment or even at home during recovery, texts and phone calls can reveal who is thinking about you and who your biggest fans are.
The most important realization I ever had from being in the hospital during the holidays is a point that I think often goes unnoticed. While we hope that family and friends are supporting patients during difficult times, we know that hospitals are always there. An oncologist and a nurse are always present during every holiday. This fact can be taken for granted during the rest of the year, when its not expected that professionals take Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years off, but while the markets and shops are closed, not all hospitals, doctors and nurses can take a break. The vigor and dedication of those determined to beat cancer is most clearly illustrated during these tough times, and in keeping with the holiday season, that is truly something to be thankful for.
On that same note, one final point regarding chemo during the holidays. Chemotherapy is associated with so many negative connotations, and rightly so: it’s a nasty thing. In the grand scheme of things, though, chemotherapy drugs are simply just medicines. Nasty, nasty, medicines designed to make sick people well again. This is a point so often overlooked because of the horrible, but justified, reputation of chemotherapy. When we get down to it, then, chemotherapy isn’t something to so afraid of: its just medicine. So while the holiday season may make bad situations seem worse for cancer patients, the holiday season should also illustrate that even when we feel that we are not where we ought to be in life, there is still a lot to be thankful for.