Christmas has always been my favorite time of year. For me, the holiday season has always inspired such a sense of hope. The elusive Christmas miracle. Everyone seems a little kinder to each other, families come together, friends reconnect…all of it seems possible during this time. I love the lights, the food, the tradition of it all. I am usually amongst the first people putting up their trees and jumping into a Lifetime Christmas movie marathon in my fuzzy socks.
This is my fourth Christmas with metastatic breast cancer.
The last few months have been really hard. In September, I found out that my cancer had progressed throughout my bones. My PET scan also picked up a tiny, unreadable spot in my right lung that had never been there before. I had been taking Aromasin and Afinitor, my fourth and last in a series of available anti-hormonal, CDK4/6 inhibitors that were available to me with the type of breast cancer I have. I was now moving onto more traditional chemotherapy.
This was a terrifying adjustment to deal with. I have crossed the line between the easier, hormone based treatment options into the harsher, more publicly obvious, regiments. Was I going to lose my hair? Is this the slippery slope leading ever lower in my declining health? Is this really it? I’m not going to lie, I was seriously freaked out.
In my mind, once you started down this road, there was no u-turn back to the anti-hormonals. There was only chemo and death. Maybe that is still true, but after two months of adjusting, I’ve regained a little more hope in that regard. In the month following the discovery of my progression, I was probably at the lowest point I had mentally been since my MBC diagnosis four years ago. I retreated into my cocoon of despair, my pillow fort of denial, the place I hide when I cannot deal with the world around me. Going through the daily motions was almost too much. What had been this impossible load for the last four years, had yet another boulder added to the weight of it. I felt like I couldn’t breathe, couldn’t swallow.
But, like four years ago, my son was there to pull me forward. He still needed his mom.
Since diagnosis, I have tried so hard to keep myself pulled together so that my son, Colin, doesn’t have to see his mom falling apart all of the time. Increasingly, it has been harder to hide the physical pain and issues I am having. Mentally, I can generally hold it inside in his presence. I am always, always, consciously aware of how unfair this whole thing is, not to me, but to him. I can’t be the mother he deserves, physically, when I am in pain, nor mentally when I am rocked with the guilt of possibly leaving him motherless. I know I am lucky to have had these four Christmases with him.
This year, I am struggling to maintain my holiday cheer. We got through Halloween and had a lovely Thanksgiving with family. I am more conscious this year of how precious that time is. I still try to mask how bad the pain is around everyone, even though it isn’t a secret that I am not well. My tree was up the weekend before Thanksgiving and luckily, I am mostly done with my holiday shopping. I have even delved into the rabbit hole that is the Hallmark movie channel, trying to channel that holiday enthusiasm.
Maybe I am trying too hard.
I always talk about the need to feel all of the feelings. That it is okay to recognize the bad days and move forward from there. It is okay to have a wallow, but it isn’t okay to stay there…After letting myself stay there too long a couple of months ago, I am horrified to feel the pull in that direction again, especially this time of year. I have been openly discussing the state of my mental health with my doctor, however and am encouraging anyone who finds themselves in a similar state to do so as well. It is not easy admitting when we feel weak, but sometimes it is necessary.
There is no shame in my game and I freely admit to taking an antidepressant. Who wouldn’t in this situation? I think we all are one phone call away from a proper meltdown. I so admire those of us who put themselves out there, publicly discussing the trials and reality of living with this disease. I do think we need to talk about our mental health more because more often than not, that aspect can make or break our day.
Especially at this time of year…for most metastatic patients, I would be willing to guarantee that the question of it is our/their ‘last Christmas’ has streamed through every one of our minds. Lately, it seems we have lost a lot of friends, people we have met in this community that have now left a gaping hole. Advocates, mothers, daughters, wives, sons and husbands, friends…it is heartbreaking every time. It also throws my own mortality to the forefront of my mind. Some of these people had seemed to be doing relatively well, then poof, they are gone. Anya, Laura, Andrea Z., Caitlyn…Some we knew were struggling but the shock and pain hit us all the same…Andrea P., April, Margo, and so many others.
Struggling this time of year does not mean you are not appreciative of everything. It just means you are not allowing yourself the time to feel and possibly grieve. You can decorate your tree, love every moment of it, and still be scared that it is the last time you do it. Hopefully, we’ll all be decorating our trees, lighting our candles, or whatever else we do to celebrate the holiday season.
You can stare joyously at the Christmas lights and still feel that ache of ‘what if’. Just recognizing it in that moment, you can acknowledge the feeling is there, and find a way to say to yourself, “maybe so, but maybe not”.
The reality is this may be my last Christmas. That was hard to even write. Maybe it is, but maybe its not. So that is how I am going to acknowledge my emotions this holiday season. That is how I am going to approach the next few months before scan time. I am going to remind myself that cancer is trying to kill me, but “maybe not” this year. Maybe not the year after…
I wish everyone, all of the people taking the time to read this, a very Merry Christmas and Happy Holiday. I hope as everyone is feeling the emotions the season brings, that you also recognize the joy and wonder that still lives in your heart this time of year. And of course, that elusive Christmas miracle…for all of us, I pray that comes with a cure and time. Time being the most precious commodity we all have. Enjoy yours this season.
Happy Holidays! xo