In our monthly column, senior writer and editor Adriana Ermter shares her personal experiences with breast cancer.
Let me just start by saying, while writing, that I’m not a Grinch. I promise. That said, Christmas is not my favourite holiday. (Thanksgiving is, because it’s all about the gratitude, mashed potatoes and turkey.) Yet, after my breast cancer diagnosis, surgery and treatment, the only place I wanted to be for the holidays was with my family in Calgary. Being single and dealing with breast cancer’s day-to-day stressors alone, by myself with my cat, was overwhelming. So, my post-cancer-treatment Christmas was probably one of the most stress-free I’ve ever experienced. Maybe it’s because I didn’t have to make one decision for a solid week, that my family loved on me or because I didn’t cook a single meal, I don’t know. But it worked and when I returned to Toronto, despite the brain fog and Tamoxifen madness, I felt lighter.
Being stress-free over the holidays is crucial, regardless of where you are in your breast cancer journey and not just for your peace of mind. According to the Canadian Cancer Society, stress can weaken your immune system, which has already been depleted courtesy of surgery and treatment. It can alter the levels of some hormones in your body—never a good thing with a breast cancer diagnosis, particularly when so many of us are already taking hormone blockers like Tamoxifen. And it can lead to bad habits, such as overeating, drinking heavily and smoking. Factor in cancer’s number one accessory, fear, and feeling the holiday cheer can be a daunting, perhaps even an unattainable, task. While I’m not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, I do have a handful of ideas to share, as I believe they can help you navigate the holidays more authentically, cheerfully.
Make your own schedule and ask everyone to accommodate it
No this is not selfish. It’s self-preservation. Cancer is exhausting both physically and mentally. You can’t predict when you’re going to have a burst of energy and when you’ll need a six-hour nap. So don’t try. Stay in one spot, preferably your own home or the home of a loved one, and request that the holiday celebrations take place there for your convenience. Ask your family and friends to do the cooking, cleaning, and organizing, too. If you don’t feel confident verbalizing this, send a group email, chat or text. Clear communication about your needs is important and trust me when I tell you, your family and friends will want to support you this way. Often, your loved ones feel helpless about your cancer diagnosis and don’t know what to do, so when you share what you need with them, they will feel purposeful and thankful to be able to support you. Yes, it will feel awkward and/or a little uncomfortable, but this is what you need.
Ditch when you need to
Just because you said you would watch a movie or have friends over doesn’t mean you have to stick to the commitment. Be flexible with your schedule and yourself. If you’re not up for it, then so be it. Ditching on your commitments, with some notice of course is, in the words of Bobby Brown, your prerogative. So go with the flow and listen to what your body wants, not what your calendar says. Take your me time guilt-free. Your friends and family will understand.
Wear what works for you
The first time I connected with my family post-surgery and treatment was the holidays. In my suitcase was a mix of soft sweatpants and sweatshirts, a pretty dress and cozy slippers and PJs. Depending on my mood and energy, I oscillated between wearing makeup and a cute outfit and lounging in head-to-toe fleece with a scrunchie in my hair. Both looks were completely acceptable. I know lots of families enjoy dinner dress-codes and go all out with fashionable parties over the holidays. It can be a lot of fun. But if you’re not up for cocktails in a little black dress, then wear what fits and feels best in the moment and make no apologies for it. It’s your presence that’s most important not your clothes.
While I don’t think I’ll ever get back to being the pre-cancer me, a big part of my post-cancer personal growth includes sharing my most vulnerable feelings with the right people, like another breastie and/or a credible psychotherapist. I recommend one of each. Having their ears and insight is a huge gift that I continue to give myself. It allows me to work through my emotions with someone who has walked a similar journey and with someone who is an unbiased professional—all in a safe and trusted space. Additionally, speaking up and asking for your basic needs throughout the holidays is critical for your health. If you’re feeling tired and overwhelmed, say so. Don’t want to go to the mall to shop for gifts, say no. Need to go to bed with a book and not stand at the sink for 30 minutes washing the dinner dishes, say goodnight.
Give yourself grace
It’s true, you may not feel like spreading the goodwill cheer this holiday and that’s okay. You are human and have just gone through or maybe are still going through a very in-humane experience. And that comes with a whole lot of different emotions. Allow yourself to move through each one as they occur. Remember perfection, even during the holidays, is not realistic; it’s actually impossible. So live each day in whatever way is possible for you. Kiss your family and tell them you love them. Be authentic and real when it comes to how you’re feeling and most of all, be kind to yourself, always, and in all the ways that you can. You deserve it.
Adriana Ermter is a multi award-winning writer and editor. Her work can be read in Figure Skater Fitness, Living Luxe and IN Magazine, as well as online at 29Secrets.com, RethinkBreastCancer.ca, Popsugar.com and AmongMen.com. The former Beauty Director for FASHION and Editor-in-Chief for Salon and Childview magazines lives in Toronto with her two very spoiled rescue cats, Murphy and Olive. You can follow Adriana on Instagram @AdrianaErmter.