The Holidays

I’ve been having trouble sleeping lately.  This hasn’t happened in a while.  When I was first diagnosed and starting treatment in mid-summer, I would lay awake at night wondering about my own future and how much time I had left, recording in my head all the things I wanted to write about in this blog for my girls before it was too late.  It’s months later now, past the halfway point between Thanksgiving and Christmas, right in the throes of the holiday season, and I’m lying awake at night worrying about me some but also at this point worrying about the futures of the many new friends I’ve made who also are battling this disease.  Most of them have been at it a lot longer than I and, quite bluntly, many of them have more advanced cancer or have been ravaged by their wars to a degree I’ve yet to experience.  They hail from all over this country – Georgia, Virginia, South Carolina, Florida, Massachusetts, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Montana, Colorado, California, Washington.  Some of them I’ve met in person through my myriad of activities with the colorectal cancer community in the last few months – additional details about those activities will be forthcoming in a future post – but many of them I’ve only come to know through their postings and pictures on Facebook and messages to me through this blog.  I know nothing about them really – not where they went to college or how many siblings they have, what they do for a living or any of those other facts that are typical indicia of budding friendships – and yet I know personal details about their medical condition (like whether they froze their eggs or sperm before treatment started and whether they poop into bags because their colons were removed).  Most importantly of all, I understand in a way that no one outside this community can their heartbreaking sorrows, their hesitant hopes and their joys that are forever changed by this disease, and they understand mine.  I’ve never known friendships like these, born not of a common alma mater or job or hometown (i.e., being at the same place at the same time), but of a common fear of the same life-threatening disease and all that comes with living with that disease.  And so, I lay awake at night wondering in this season that’s supposed to be about brilliant light in the midst of wintry darkness and the miracle of Jesus’s birth and the childlike magic of Santa Claus, whether I and others of my new friends will be the beneficiaries of light and miracles and magic.  I know they wonder as I do.

The holidays, these days and weeks filled with music, food, parties, movies, vibrant colors, family, friends, love and the wonderful optimism that comes with a new year – seemingly nearly everything that is good that makes life worth living – are hard for those of us confronting death (although admittedly some of us are much closer than others).  Some of my new friends are rejoicing at the news of continued remission, but it seems to me more are dealing with hospitalizations for cancer-related complications, increased CEA numbers, recurrences in the liver and lungs, new spots on PET scans and MRIs and chemo for life.  I find myself lying awake, wanting to write something for my new friends now and in posts to come, something honest and inspiring, something that will hopefully make them (and me) feel better in this and other difficult times.  

Last weekend we bought a 7-foot Christmas tree, just as we did last Christmas, from the same lot in our Brooklyn neighborhood, put it in the same spot in the corner, hung the same ornaments and the same pretty little pearl lights I love so much.  The girls were initially excited but soon lost interest, just as they did last year, and I was left alone to fuss over the tree’s beautification.  Shortly after we’d placed the tree in its stand, Josh and I hugged each other before its nakedness, silently acknowledging that the acquisition of the tree marked the beginning this year of our nascent Christmas tradition that we’d just begun last year, a tradition that is now being threatened.  Last year we had no reason to think our young Christmas traditions wouldn’t endure for years to come with me cooking  and baking and the kids one day coming home from college to their favorite dishes that I’d make only at Christmas time.  Last year, we had no clue I had a cancerous tumor growing inside me.  Last year, we were so innocent and blissfully free of this prison that is life with cancer.

It used to be that when I recalled the past events of my life, I would place them in a temporal context of before Josh and after Josh, before marriage and after marriage, and then the biggest milestone of all, before kids and after kids, and now it’s always before cancer and after cancer.  When I meet a friend for lunch, I think, The last time I saw him, I wasn’t sick yet.  When I go to restaurant, I think, Oh, the last time I was here it was three months before my diagnosis.  So too was it with bringing home and decorating this year’s Christmas tree – The last time we were here decorating a tree was 12 months ago before cancer.   A, the woman in my support group at Gilda’s Club, who I spoke of in my post The Art of Anger and who had Hodgkin’s Lymphoma (a generally very curable  cancer), wouldn’t tell new people who joined the group what type of cancer she had (as requested by the facilitator of all of us) because she said in her angry, petulant way, “I refuse to allow myself to be defined by cancer so I’m not going to tell you what kind of cancer I have.  I’m [A], not a cancer.”  I hear statements like this sometimes from cancer patients, statements to the effect that they will not allow cancer to define or change their lives, that they will not allow it to “win” so to speak.  I think such statements, especially A’s, are incredibly naive.  If you have cancer, it is impossible for that cancer not to define you to some degree (frequently based on the seriousness of the cancer), just as my memory of events is now defined by whether they occurred before or after cancer.  We are all defined by so many things in our lives.  I am a legally blind Chinese American immigrant from Vietnam, daughter of so-so, wife of Josh, mother to Mia and Belle, lawyer, graduate of so-and-so institutions, and now someone who is fighting cancer.  Cancer has affected my life, just as all the other things that define me have affected my life.  What A and others who share her mindset don’t seem to realize is that what matters is not whether cancer defines or changes their lives, but rather whether the way it does so is negative or positive.

With the clean scent of earth and evergreen in the air, Josh and I mourned in the presence of our tree what once was and what will never be, wondering with more than a little sadness how many more Thanksgivings and Christmases and New Years I would have.  Just as I’ve done on occasion in the last five months, I found myself envying all those who still have the untarnished promise of a long life (as much promise as life gives anyone).  And as I wrote about in Invictus, sometimes I go back to the unanswerable “Why” questions, angry once more at the injustice of it all.  These thoughts flashed across my consciousness that day, and then I moved on with life – taking Mia to a birthday party, making a run to Target, hanging out with friends who came over for some tree decorating and hot chocolate.  I never dwell on the mournful thoughts or the questions for which there are no answers or the envy to which there is no point.  I categorize these thoughts and feelings as negative – important to think and feel and acknowledge, but ultimately unproductive and therefore what I consider useless and negative.  What A doesn’t understand is that cancer “wins” when she allows negativity (like her intense anger) to linger, fester and invade her psyche, in much the same way that cancer cells proliferate, unchecked, until they destroy the body.  Negative thoughts and emotions when they run amuck morph into unproductive and debilitating anger, isolation, hopelessness and depression.  At that point, cancer has won the war that it wages in the psychological realm by crushing the heart and spirit.

That evening, when our neighbors (who are Jewish) came over, we all sipped hot chocolate with Christmas carols playing in the background while a healthy snow fell outside and the fragrance of cinnamon from a candle helped to warm the air.  N, one of Mia’s best friends in our building, was incredibly excited to decorate the Christmas tree with me as she proclaimed, “I’ve never seen a Christmas tree inside a house before!”  The children played and the adults talked and laughed.  Yes, the reality of my cancer hung in the air, as it always does, but I rejoiced in the moments of that evening, in being with my husband and children, in being with our friends, in managing to make new, good memories despite the cancer.  In an ironic way, cancer makes these moments sweeter than they would have been otherwise, more precious and beautiful.  In the peaceful glow of that evening, I knew and still fervently believe that come what may in the physical war against cancer, even though I have my periods of sadness and fear and grief, cancer will ultimately never defeat me because my heart and spirit still, and will always, seek and rejoice in moments like these that crystalize the wonders and beauty of life.  It is as I said in Invictus, I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.

So to my friends who are struggling, remember that you too are masters of your fates and captains of your souls.  Make the most precious and beautiful memories you can make and win your wars against cancer; win it with your heart and spirit.  Happy holidays to you all.


4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Lisa
    Dec 16, 2013 @ 06:21:33

    Brilliant sentimens, as always. You are a realist with spirit. Love that in you.


  2. Bill Ide
    Dec 16, 2013 @ 11:38:51

    What a blessing you have with the ability to use words that jump off the page into the heart and mind of those of us who need such articulations to provide postive direction against the fears and doubts. Hamilton Jordan wrote a book about his cancers called ” There are no bad days”. which I found helpful to fight off the highjackers of fear. Thanks for sharing your talents with us and yes, have a wonderful holiday season with your family and friends..


  3. Paula Smith Roberts
    Dec 16, 2013 @ 13:01:21

    Oh Julie, I love to read your blog. I second Bill’s post, your writings are a gift that you share, I look forward to unwrapping each one as they come in.


  4. Shan
    Dec 25, 2013 @ 21:07:34

    What a great holiday post! Thanks for sharing your words of wisdom and love.


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