The frenzy of the holiday season is upon us — decorations, parties, cookies and gifts are all around. For people dealing with cancer, the holiday hubbub may be irritating, exhausting, or even depressing. Many people find the holidays stressful, but for people with cancer, the stress is unique, not only because of the physical symptoms that come with cancer and treatment, but also the psychological ones. And stress can commonly develop from unrealistic expectations, such as wanting Christmas to be like it always was or feeling you need to do everything for everyone, or from worry about the future. In order to manage the stress, diminish the depressed feelings and find some joy in the holidays, I suggest doing something you probably did as a child: create a wish list. Creating a holiday wish list is a simple exercise that may help you shift your thinking and manage stressful feelings; and it can also give you a rush of dopamine, a brain chemical that makes you feel good. Think of the exercise as a way of not letting cancer control your holiday.
Find a quiet place to sit, think a bit, and then make a list of what you wish for this year. Of course, wanting not to have cancer is the first thing on everyone’s list, but for now cancer is a reality. So try to move beyond that thought and think of other wishes for the list.
Once you’ve written your list, step back and take a look at what you’ve written. Does your list fit in one of the categories below?
- I wish to not be tired and sick.
- I wish to not get chemo.
- I wish to never take another pill.
This list suggests that you are stuck being angry about treatment. Remind yourself that wanting to cross off cancer is perfectly normal, but for today, cancer is here and has to be managed. Going through treatment is your best shot at controlling the cancer, and fully engaging in your cancer plan is the best way to feel more in control. Accept the diagnosis, create a medical notebook with your treatment plan, learn about your medicines, and talk to your oncology team about side effects. Now sit back down with your paper and nice, colorful pen to make another wish list, one that includes some fun.
- I wish to travel to the moon.
- I wish for five horses.
- I wish to hike Mt Everest.
If your list looks like this one, good work day dreaming! Day dreaming is a wonderful way to release dopamine in your brain, the chemical that improves your mood. Caution though: too much fantasy does not lead to actual activity that improves your mood over time. So, what activities can you enjoy right now? Instead of shooting for the moon, how about traveling to a local state park, or a planetarium, for star gazing? Maybe visit a friend with puppies or a zoo instead of taking on horses. You can’t scale the world’s tallest mountain at the moment, but you can dedicate yourself to a daily walk. Do make plans when you have cancer. Do problem solve with your family and the oncology team to figure out how to make those plans a reality now.
- I wish I could drive myself.
- I wish could do my own yard work.
- I wish to go back to work and make money again.
If the list resembles this third example, then you are likely stuck thinking a lot about how much cancer has changed your ability to be independent and productive. Leaving work because of a cancer diagnosis is a massive life change, even a psychological trauma for some. Looking for new ways to define your self-worth and be physically active is essential. Are you able to take care of grandkids? Do some light housework or cooking? Help loved ones with their work or hobbies? Take on a volunteer job? Altruism is another way the brain releases dopamine, the reward chemical that makes you feel good. Recognizing that there are many ways to contribute to your family and community begins the process of healing from the life changes that come with cancer.
If your list is just blank, then coal in the stocking for you! Humor, remember humor, is always an excellent medicine. Find a friend or neighbor, or the nurse, medical assistant or front desk person at the medical clinic and tell them about your wish list assignment. Ask what they wish for. Write it down. Ask for help making your list. Maybe include specific items (warm socks, a soft scarf, new music), or experiences (art museum, tickets to a play, a ball game) or tasks if you tend to feel best when you finish a job (organize a file cabinet, clean out the basement, take a class). But make the list. Your brain will appreciate the dopamine, and your mood will improve.
The holidays are a stressful time for many people, and when you have cancer, finding joy in the season is a challenge. However, the process of thinking about what you like, writing about what you want, and taking the steps to make specific wishes a reality now will be helpful. Try to keep your expectations realistic and your wishes based in the present, not the future. And check your list twice to make sure cancer does not dominate.