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Getting in the spirit

Author: Bridget McCrea

As Keisha and Rod Echols began to process the news of Rod’s stage III colorectal cancer diagnosis in August 2012, thoughts of how the diagnosis would affect their family in the months ahead took center stage. With two young children and the holidays around the corner, the Echolses wanted to do what they could to ensure that their children’s lives remained as normal as possible during this stressful period.

The fact that Rod, 39, was scheduled for surgery on the day before Thanksgiving made planning for and participating in a traditional celebration on the usual day particularly challenging. And his next surgery was set for December 27—two days after Christmas—and would again have an impact on the family’s holiday.

A planner by nature, Keisha, 42, began thinking about the family traditions she and Rod had enjoyed for years as a couple and with their children. “As soon as we talked about Rod’s treatment plan, I pulled out my calendar,” she recalls. “I did as much as I could in advance—especially for our children, who were one and three years old at the time and our top priorities.”

Determined not to let the diagnosis sideline the holidays but also flexible enough to invite new traditions into their lives, the Echolses put their minds together and came up with a workable solution that would carry through the holidays and into the New Year.

First on the agenda was a slight rearranging of Thanksgiving to accommodate Rod’s surgery date and to allow the family to enjoy a traditional get-together. “After we plugged the dates into the calendar, we started calling family members and inviting them to a dinner on the Sunday before Thanksgiving,” Keisha explains. Moving the celebration ahead by a few days not only helped the Echolses manage their hectic schedule but also allowed family members who usually have other plans on Thanksgiving Day to celebrate with them.

“It’s not always easy to get an extended family together on a single day—with everyone having dinners and parties,” Keisha explains. “Because we moved the date, our families, locally and from out of town, were able to celebrate with us. It actually worked out perfectly.” Being around loved ones helped Rod forget about the upcoming surgery and gave him peace of mind about his family’s being able to enjoy the holiday. “Even though I was in the hospital on Thanksgiving Day, I’d already enjoyed the time with my family, so it was okay,” says Rod.

With a successful, enjoyable Thanksgiving celebration and a positive surgical outcome in the rearview mirror, the Echolses focused on Christmas. In anticipation of a hectic season, Keisha and Rod had started shopping for their children and other family members as early as October. “I didn’t want all of that shopping to fall on me as the holiday got closer,” says Keisha, “so we did it together whenever we could.”

Budgeting was also important in light of Rod’s current and expected medical bills. Keisha says that the couple honed in on two or three presents that would help their young daughter learn and grow, and then allowed their son to choose a few gifts that he would enjoy. “We talked to him about how this season wasn’t going to be about getting a lot of toys,” says Keisha. “We kept it simple while still maintaining the spirit of the holidays.”

With Rod scheduled for the second surgery right after Christmas, the Echolses were able to celebrate on their normal schedule, enjoy time with their children, and visit with family members. Keisha says that throughout the holidays she and Rod arranged several dedicated “family nights” to help their children take the focus away from “Daddy’s ouchie” by seeing a movie, viewing holiday light displays and visiting parks and playgrounds.

“It was obviously a stressful time, but we tried to make every moment as special as possible for them,” says Rod, whose surgeries were successful and who is now getting follow-up checkups every six months. “Looking back now I think we managed to balance my diagnosis and treatment with the usual holiday stress pretty well.”

To other families that are facing similar challenges, Keisha says, “Plan as much as you can in advance and utilize all your available resources.”

Rod adds, “Make sure everything is covered, but also be ready to improvise when needed. That flexibility can really make the difference when it comes to traditions, celebrations and holiday spirit.”

No case is typical. You should not expect to experience these results.

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