When it comes to the holiday season, Lori Wallace, a mother of two sons, is accustomed to being in charge. “I’m the mom, I’m kind of the epicenter of my family,” she says. “So I make Christmas.”
But in early April of 2011, Lori woke up with pain in her breast from what she thought was a small toy left in her bed by her five-year-old. No toy was there, and the pain persisted. She soon had her diagnosis: stage IIA invasive ductal carcinoma.
Less than a week later, Lori had an excisional biopsy, and her younger son’s birthday was fast approaching. “I was planning a five-year-old’s birthday party, working full time, and trying to understand this crazy new world I’d been thrown into,” she says.
Since then, Lori has undergone a bilateral mastectomy, received multiple rounds of chemotherapy, endured severe side effects, and in early 2014, faced the news that her cancer had metastasized. At that point, she left her job permanently to deal with cancer and focus on her family.
Facing the holidays as a cancer patient
“This will be my third Christmas with metastatic breast cancer,” Lori says. “I’m very conscious of the fact that this could be my last Christmas, and so I want to make it enjoyable for me in addition to my family.”
Her strategy: to maintain the parts of the holidays that are most important to her and her family, but make it as easy as possible. Lori says the lessons she’s learned about facing the holidays with cancer can be relevant for any patient, whether or not their diagnosis is terminal.
“My first Christmas after my early stage diagnosis, I’d just had surgery,” Lori says. “So I asked, ‘how can I make this happen so that everyone has a great time, but I’m still going to have drains in my body?’ ”
The answer: honest communication of needs and expectations. For example, if a patient is used to preparing a large, elaborate meal, they might consider enlisting other people to pitch in more than normal. “Unless we tell our friends and family what our limitations are, they can’t know,” Lori says. “So it requires being patient and understanding with each other.”
It also requires being kind to oneself. Lori recommends that cancer patients check in with themselves and ask, “do I have the energy to cook today?” or “do I really need to go to the mall on this sale weekend?” It’s okay to do whatever is easiest, she says.
I’ll stay home for Christmas
When it comes to extended family, Lori has unburdened herself from obligations. In the past, she has traveled with her husband and sons to spend Christmas day with her in-laws, but she no longer has the energy for the non-stop social interaction and complex coordination of such a trip.
“It’s not like I don’t cherish my time with my in-laws,” Lori says. “They’re very understanding about it because I won’t shut up about having cancer [laughs], so they’re always aware of what’s going on with me.”
Above all, openness and honesty are key. “It’s not always easy because there’s a lot of emotions and people get upset about things,” Lori says. “But that’s when you always keep going back and communicating the core idea of, ‘how can we meet my needs without me being a burden?’ And then everyone benefits.”
Besides family, the holidays are also a time to reconnect with friends. Friends and coworkers provide important connections, especially after a cancer diagnosis, but going to parties and work events can be severely draining for a patient, even if they appear to be energetic and chatty.
“If I go to a party, people might not realize that I prepared for two days in advance, and I will suffer the consequences for three days afterwards,” Lori says. “But it’s worth it, it’s so worth it.”
Coming to terms with metastasis
Since Lori found out that her cancer had metastasized, she has learned even more about what is best for her and her family. The first few months were a blur, she says, but time and a few key resources have helped her through the years. While she still faces deep grief, she has also managed to tap into a place of peace.
“At this point, I’m much more relaxed about things because I’ve already had so much time to grieve and cry and feel desperate, like this is my last birthday, Christmas, Thanksgiving, Halloween, and so on,” Lori says. “But you get up the next day and it’s another day, and you do the best you can.”
Besides time, Lori credits the book Another Morning: Voices of Truth and Hope from Mothers with Cancer, by Linda Blachman, with helping her deal with grief and mortality. “I’ve read a lot of cancer books, but most of them are not compelling for me. This book made me go, ‘that’s it!’ because she found the words to explain how I’d been feeling.”
Lori has also benefitted from attending weekend retreats at Commonweal in Bolinas, California, with her Bay Area-based patient support group. The retreats have helped her deal with anticipatory grief and accepting “emotions that you don’t even know how to express.”
Being part of a patient support group can also be hugely important. “When people have babies, they need to be around other people that are having babies. When people are getting married, they should be around other people getting married. Whatever the circumstances, you need your people,” Lori says. “If I didn’t have my people, I don’t know what I would do.”
The gift of kindness
This year for the holidays, Lori and her family are especially focused on giving each other experiences to enjoy together, instead of physical gifts. She has also given herself the gift of being kind and patient with herself.
“It’s so much easier for me to enjoy Christmas now because I don’t have all those expectations about what I’m supposed to do for the people around me. Instead, I’m much more happy to just experience time with friends and family.”
And, she says, her holiday advice for cancer patients can actually serve as life advice for anyone. “The ultimate thing is setting realistic expectations and being kind to yourself. We should all do that, right? It doesn’t matter if you have cancer or you’re healthy. Everyone is struggling with something, and we’re all in it together.”
Follow Lori on Twitter at @lori_wp.
Update: We are deeply saddened to report that Lori passed away on October 20th, 2018. It is a privilege to continue to share her story and help keep her memory alive.