Jo’s lesson learned: Advice for your first Christmas with breast cancer
Five years ago Jo ploughed through her first Christmas during treatment as if nothing was wrong, and it ended in disaster. This Christmas, her first since being diagnosed with advanced breast cancer, she’s putting what she learned into action.
In 2010, the first time I had breast cancer, I was still recovering from mastectomy and had started chemotherapy on 20th December.
My biggest problem was that Christmas is my thing in our house – I do the decorations, play the Christmas carols and cook the food. And love doing it. I start present shopping in November and look forward to the whole thing so much.
My husband was totally against it as I was ill, and wanted to cancel Christmas – without quite realising how important it was to me. So I decided to soldier on and do it anyway.
That Christmas I was so ill – trying to keep a brave face on for my 8 year old son and 20 something stepdaughter. I wasn’t responding to the anti-nausea meds and cooking a full roast lunch with all the trimmings was such a challenge. But I did it – even though I couldn’t eat it.
My husband was worried and anxious – and his way of showing that is to get angry and snappy – which created a bad atmosphere. He was upset no one was helping out. But that’s because they weren’t picking up like he was that I was really at rock bottom and putting on a front.
I remember serving finger food to my parents on our deck and my mother asking me why I wasn’t having a gin and tonic with them in a hurt tone of voice. That made me realise with a shock what an incredible front I must be putting up as I was feeling so awful inside - but they didn’t even realise.
In the end my husband finally asked everyone to leave on Boxing Day and no one wanted to go. The nurse arrived and was trying to give me an anti-nausea injection with everyone still trying to talk to me and ask why I wasn’t well enough to carry on with Christmas and complaining that they were being asked to leave. Even with the nurse there brandishing the needle they honestly just didn’t realise how bad I was feeling.
I should have straight out told them all.
What a relief when they all went and I could rest and recover.
We’ve had a few Christmases since then – back to normal and fun times. Lost my Dad, saw 2 kids married, gained a grandchild.
Now this year here we are again – triple negative metastatic breast cancer at age 53. A whole new ball game. I’ve just finished 6 treatments of chemo and not feeling sick this time, but oh so tired. Everyone cannot believe we are here again after passing the 5 year clear mark.
When I broke the news of the diagnosis, the first thing my stepdaughter said was that she wanted to learn how to ‘do’ Christmas this year. She wants to stand by my side and watch and learn how to glaze the ham, stuff the turkey, make the Christmas pud. I am thrilled. That’s her way of telling me she loves how I put so much effort into Christmas for them, and that she appreciates it and wants to continue all the traditions for her own family. It’s also her way of telling me not to worry if I am not here – she will step in and make sure everyone still has a good time like we always do.
Of course the elephant in the room is how many more Christmases will we have together – but I don’t go down that path!
I asked for help – which is not easy. I asked my son to get the decorations out of the attic, and my best friend to put the tree up (assisted by a glass of Christmas champagne.) My husband has bought the ham, and everyone will be asked to pitch in and take on a chore each – with no compromise on detail or tradition! My hand is on the tiller, but they’re doing a lot of the work.
I feel relaxed and pampered and I really will enjoy it.
On the 27th we are off to Australia for a post-chemo holiday and for the first time ever I will close the front door without changing beds and cleaning bathrooms after all our house guests have gone. I’ll sort all that out when I get back after a relaxing holiday.
My chemotherapy treatment has had an amazing result and I am feeling so grateful and happy – and really appreciating every single thing that I have got, rather than breaking my heart over what I might miss. I’ll take this happy hiatus until it is back to the coal face when the cancer strikes again.
So this year I have learnt that it is still fine to have what you want, but it is important to rest, enjoy and ask for assistance. Pay attention to your body and recognise your limitations. Cut corners where possible and necessary without compromising on the important things.
Do the things that make you happy – and if you can’t manage it all yourself, let everyone know you are tired/sick/depressed – and just straight out ask them to do whatever it is you want for you. You’ll probably find that people would love to do it but don’t know what you want or need.
And if you can’t be bothered with all the hoo ha, mix it up a little – pack a ham sandwich and hit the Christmas beach!