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Navigating the Holidays: 5 Things Cancer Patients Wish You Knew

Navigating the holidays
The Rev. Percy McCray shares what those who have fought or are fighting cancer would like for you to know about cancer and the holidays.

Dealing with cancer can be tough. The chemotherapy and other treatments, combined with anxiety and changes to diet and the body, can take their toll. For many, it is difficult to adjust to the need to depend on others, especially when we prefer to be independent and capable. The pressure to try to maintain a business or household while also battling cancer can make things even harder. 

Cancer takes so much from us. It is important that we not allow it to take away the relationships and special moments that we have to spend together. As a cancer survivor and minster, I know this all too well. We believe that this is even more important this year as we are all impacted by the effects of COVID-19. Many of the healthy also feel isolated and alone. And making meaningful connections with loved ones is even more difficult.

The last thing anyone battling cancer wants, in addition to these already monumental challenges, is to suffer through isolation and loneliness. This loneliness can become even more intense around the holidays. We naturally crave connection and the company of others. But many patients often experience empty conversations and a lack of connection with others.

The holidays bring with them many inevitable awkward conversations with family, colleagues and friends who might not know how to ask or what best to say regarding a diagnosis or condition. Basic small talk seems inappropriate, but speaking truth can feel too heavy.

What is the appropriate thing to say? How can we show those who are dealing with cancer that they are loved? Here are some things that I have learned from the real men and women who have fought and are currently fighting this disease, and what they would like for you to know when it comes to cancer and the holidays:

  1. "I don't want the holidays to be all about my cancer. Of course, there will be things I have to navigate, like food and fatigue, and maybe I will not be able to do quite as much this year, like cooking and cleaning and gift-giving. But please, please do not make it all about me. I just want normalcy and to have fun with the people I love!”

  2. "Don't baby me. I love that you want to love on me a little more than normal. Who doesn't love hugs? But you do not have to baby me. I'm not broken. I'm still me. And when you stop treating me like me, in a way, I'm already gone.”

  3. "Go ahead and ask. I know you want to. Listen, cancer is no fun. I know it; you know it. It is the elephant in the room. So, don't avoid the topic. That is awkward for all of us. I know it's on your mind. It's on mine, too. So, ask what you want to ask. But we do not have to dwell on it, either. I still enjoy talking about football and Christmas vacation and all of the things I've always enjoyed talking about!" 

  4. "Just enjoy the little moments with me. Don't stress over what is or is not happening regarding get-togethers or gifts. Put down your phone and be present and engaged in the time you are with friends and family (and me). I have come to understand that time is the most important thing. Enjoy the people in your life!"

  5. "You can still be happy. In fact, I would prefer it. I still want to hear about what is happening in your life. I know that just because I have cancer, your life has not come to a complete halt. And it makes me happy to hear about what you are doing, what your kids or grandkids are doing, to see you doing well and hear that you are happy. You are not selfish for talking about you, too, and you should not feel guilty because things are going great for you. Do not keep that stuff from me because you think it will make me feel worse. It does not!"

Hopefully, these honest words from people who have battled and are battling cancer will shine a light on what it is that they—and millions of others like them—would most like in their stockings and under their trees this holiday season: a little normalcy.

If you would like to start a cancer care ministry in your church to better support cancer patients and those who care for them, visit OurJourneyofHope.com.