What It’s Like to be a Cancer Patient in the Holiday Season
After two years, Lisa Norsen can joke that the timing of her cancer diagnosis was bad for her social calendar.
She learned that she had breast cancer on Nov. 16, 2016, which would undoubtedly put a damper on her family’s merrymaking — baking, decorating, gifts, parties, silliness — that kicks off at Thanksgiving and goes to the end of the year, with her December 16th birthday mixed in. One year, Norsen bought adult-sized onesies for everyone and insisted on a family picture. “I am the crazy one,” she says.
But in 2016, instead of carving a turkey on Thanksgiving, Norsen traveled around the Rochester area to four different households of family members to share details of her diagnosis. Then, instead of having a 62nd birthday party, she spent a quiet day at home with her husband, thinking about what was to come. In early December, she did bake cookies with her sisters and posed for a photo wearing reindeer antlers — but the next day she shaved her head. Chemotherapy was starting to take its toll. She did her best, but there was plenty of raw emotion.
“My season turned into one of reflection and giving of thanks,” Norsen says. “It was thanks for having an extended family that was going to support me through treatment. And it was an opportunity for me to share with them how I was really feeling. And for them lay eyes on me as I was sick, and know that it was going to be okay.”
On December 24 she received chemotherapy, was exhausted and decided to skip her nephew’s annual Christmas Eve party —a huge departure. Her husband went to the gathering and her sister came to stay.
“We had some very tender moments,” Norsen says. “My sister told me how worried she was and expressed her fear of losing me. It’s very important to give your family permission to say what they need to say. Some people may not be able to do this, and in that case it’s also important to not hold a grudge because they simply can’t acknowledge what’s happening.”
On Christmas day she was able to attend a niece’s party, and realized that modifying plans and make new traditions is part of the journey — and that “a little sadness is okay.”
“The entire situation was humbling and emotional for all of us, made more so because of the holiday season,” Norsen says. “I think all cancer families go through this in some way at some time, but the holidays make it more poignant.”
Norsen, a nurse who has a doctorate degree, serves as the Chief Wellness Officer for the UR Medicine Center for Employee Wellness. She recalls telling her family that she didn’t want the holidays of 2016 to be “all about me having cancer.”
“Yes, this diagnosis is a part of my life story but it’s only one chapter,” she says. “It’s not the only story. For me, the most awkward part was figuring out how to say: ‘You don’t have to treat me special.’ Cancer doesn’t mean my life stops. It just takes on a different brilliance.”
She suggests embracing family and friends and making an effort to take part in as many holiday traditions as possible.
And for those individuals who’re visiting with cancer patients during the holidays, Norsen suggests “being brave enough to say: ‘I’m glad you’re here and that we’re spending this time together.’ ”
Sandra Sabatka, L.M.S.W., senior social worker at Wilmot Cancer Institute, also offered some practical suggestions for family and friends, such as asking someone with cancer “What’s up?” rather than “How do you feel?” That approach removes the focus from illness.
It’s important to avoid sharing stories of other people’s experiences with cancer and its treatment, Sabatka says. And ask permission before you hug; some people have a compromised immune system and are worried about exposures to colds and flu.
For patients, Sabatka suggests knowing your limits and asking for help. Tell the host you’ll come for dessert but not dinner, for example. Ask a friend to do your gift-wrapping.
“The holidays can be profound,” Norsen adds. “I am by nature the family nurturer and caregiver and it has always been my great joy to do this. But what I realized during this particular holiday season was that my family wanted to, and was capable of, nurturing and caring for me. It was the first time my family saw me as vulnerable, ever.”
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