Ho, Ho…Hell No–Facing the Holiday Season with a Cancer Diagnosis


Channukah, Christmas, Kwanza…. and Cancer? 

The problem with Gratitude is that it knows too much. Sure, it has an innocent and ingénue side. It gets good press and is prominently featured in loving-kindness meditations, Oprah magazine and bedtime journal entries. But in order to arrive at it’s truest moment and the heart of it all, gratitude has to have seen too much of life in order to be real. Gratitude’s essence can only emerge after painful losses, balm-less wounds of the soul, harrowing life events and near-death mishaps. In that moment, washed up on life’s shores – battered and beaten from the waves, but still miraculously intact – is when you are able to exhale, look upwards, feel the proximity of mortality and know how precious this all is. Life offers its bounty up in a complex smorgasbord. Heaping servings of pain, sorrow and disappointment sit right next to unbounded joy, love and beauty, their respective gravy intermingling on your overflowing plate. In our most fragile moments, we can appreciate the authenticity of vulnerability and the inevitability of mortality. On the upside, deep appreciation and thankfulness always ride shotgun in the pickup truck of life.

In the past two weeks, my husband and I have both needed trips to the emergency room with unexpected hospitalization. In an instant, life is turned upside down and the rug can be pulled out from under you. One moment you are cleaning up from Thanksgiving and the next you have passed out on the floor. One moment you are teaching a graduate school business class and the next your world is spinning as you lay flat on your back. Thankfully, we have weathered the worst of this latest storm and are now fully on the mend with relief and reassurance and a deep sense of having dodged that last bullet by a hair. Our calendars are now filled with follow up tests, physical therapy appointments and medication adjustments. But together, we are feeling stronger and ready to pick up where we left off and face what lies ahead.

It turns out that returning to life as usual is not as easy as it sounds. I am feeling a lot of pressure. I love the goodwill and charitable vibe of the holiday season, especially in these desperate times in a deeply wounded world, but some years it is harder to get into the groove than others. The world seems to be rushing, when all I want to do is slow down. The to-do lists are spiraling, but “make a cup of tea and drink it silently by the fire” is all that beckons. Our culture promotes consuming and constant upgrading, when all I want to do is lovingly repurpose the intangibles that I already possess. My flat answer to the question “where are you going this holiday?” is unsatisfactory, for the only place I want to “go” is right where I already am. This small life of mine, as it stands right now, is unimaginable in an ever-pulsating and propelling planet. It is, quite simply, beyond enough.

The irony of illness is that its most trusted companion is loneliness. When we live with the ever-present shadow of a diagnosis, we may feel like we are on the outside of life looking in, viewing the action from a distance. Everyone else is going about their life, embracing the normalcy of it all and taking for granted all the delicious, luxurious, tediously boring details of existence. While the world might relish complaining about the “stress” of the holiday season, the hallmark of illness, loss and uncertainty is that it will never allow you to forget the preciousness and comfort of boring old routines, quiet pleasures, small joys, and the gifts that true love can offer. The precariousness of not knowing exactly how many holidays are left on your dance card can bring it all home, with both a punch and a hug.The ignorance of good health is, truly, bliss.

So I want to raise a toast to my fellow inhabitants of Planet Cancer: while we struggle with the acute awareness that life is uncertain, unpredictable and unfair, may we also remember that it is endlessly magical, mysterious and magnificent…. When we stand in the lines of life, overhearing what others consider insurmountable “stressors”, we can be thankful for having learned how to count true blessings…. When we review our burgeoning to-do list and decide to pick what reallymatters and chuck the rest, we celebrate our ability to triage priorities and manage fatigue, rather than berate our slothful laziness…. When we feel the edgy buzz of families preparing to be in each other’s presence, with inevitable discord waiting surreptitiously in the wings, we know what battles are indeed worth fighting and what is best left alone. We have a profound appreciation for the depth of the void if any one of us was missing from the festive table.

Indeed, the promise of absolutely nothing and the guarantee that there are definitely no guarantees is a real bummer…. not just in this holiday season, but every day. But it is also a golden ticket to choose precisely what you want to do, when you want to do it and then enjoy full permission to just go out and do it.No explanations, no apologies, no excuses, no justifications needed. She has cancer, I can hear them whispering to each other in an explanatory fashion behind me as I pass by, letting go of anything that no longer fills me, peacefulness finally filling my heart. Daring, dangerous and delicious. THAT is what I want for the holidays.


Lisa Wise was raised in Montreal, fell in love her husband of 28 years in grad school, is the proud Mom (and student) of fraternal twin sons and currently delights in the pristine, untouched orderliness of her newly emptied nest. As a third generation B-cell lymphoma warrior woman, cancer has always been an integral part of her family legacy but never a defining factor. Lisa has navigated through the palliative care journey with three of her immediate family members and uses the invaluable lessons that she gleaned from those pivotal experiences to inform, shape and guide her work with cancer patients and caregivers. To refresh and recharge, Lisa delights in visiting the ocean, listening to blues guitar, finding healing humor in every day life, and practicing mindfulness meditation. Regular doses of high quality dark chocolate help as well.

3 thoughts on “Ho, Ho…Hell No–Facing the Holiday Season with a Cancer Diagnosis

  1. What a perfectly timed posting of this blog. I was days away from being discharged from an extended stay in rehab due to septicemia. Then I got that call from the doctor saying that the leukemia had relapsed and I needed treatment ASAP.

    Can I say, disappointment, big time? I had been so looking forward to snuggling with my 2 kitties in my own home. I hadn’t bee home since September 1 and now it was December 14. I needed this soft, fuzzy faces and bodies in my arms. Then when my doctor said I would be in the hospital probably for a month, my world collapsed.

    I have now somewhat come to terms with this long separation from a life outside of institutions. I really look forward to daily kitty snuggles, visits with friends at home while sitting in “my” chIr with a hand crocheted blanket made for me by a friend warming me. It IS those little things that remind us that we are alive and loved. So, thank you Lisa for this reminder.

  2. How timely. Just found this site on Christmas day. I am wrestling with going into a family household all three have bad colds. Unlike the author of this blog I do not feel okay to say I cannot come cause I am on chemotherapy. I am still caught up in family dramas that are not good for me. I have stage 4 be cancer with mets to bone and lung. My significant other and sister in law died this year. My 42 yr old dgt asked for help which I did not feel I could provide but could not say no. So came and a big fight occurred…2 days after my treatment when I feel the worst.
    So Ty for your words and anyone with clues on how to be so free of guilt let me know.

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