Woman looks in a holiday decorated mirror with a sad expression

Highs and Lows of the Holiday Season

The time of the year between Thanksgiving and New Year’s always brings about a lot of conflicting emotions for me. While it’s supposed to be the happiest time of the year due to lots of family events and holiday celebrations, it’s also the time of the year when I was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer.

Comparing holidays then and now

By Thanksgiving in 2013, I had an inkling that something was seriously wrong with my health. I didn’t know my diagnosis yet, but I remember celebrating Thanksgiving with my family, concerned about MRI results from my elbow that showed a mass that could be “suggestive of metastatic disease.” I am very fortunate to have been able to celebrate eight additional Thanksgivings with my family since then, but my joy is always a little tempered by that memory.

This year, both of my sons came home from college for Thanksgiving, my older son flying in from New Jersey and my younger son took a train from Michigan. When I was first diagnosed, I never thought I would be alive to see my boys become college students, so of course, I am thrilled to be able to experience this. However, my thoughts always wander to the future and how many more years I will get to see. Before my diagnosis, this is not anything I ever would have considered, but I am now too cognizant of my own mortality.

Is this a good thing or a bad thing? I’m not completely sure. I know that it’s important for good mental health to try to live in the present as much as possible and enjoy the life that is right in front of you. I do try to live this way as much as possible, but I always feel a little wistful during the holiday season for my old innocent pre-diagnosis self, who could think about the future without any concerns.

Seasonal affective disorder

Recently, I have done some reading about SAD, seasonal affective disorder. SAD is a “type of depression that's related to changes in seasons — SAD begins and ends at about the same times every year. If you're like most people with SAD, your symptoms start in the fall and continue into the winter months, sapping your energy and making you feel moody.”1 While I don’t believe that I meet the criteria for SAD because I don’t have most of the signs and symptoms, I think that some of the recommendations for feeling better during this time of the year could be helpful for me. According to the Mayo Clinic, exercising regularly, keeping blinds open to access the sun, walking outside, socializing, and getting regular (but not too much) sleep can all improve mood and increase energy.2 I’m going to try to incorporate as many of these suggestions into my life in the upcoming months as possible, given that I live in Chicago where there is not much sun this time of the year!

Enjoying today with my loved ones

Still, it often seems to me that my recognition of my own mortality has advantages as well. I no longer put off things to later dates that I really want to experience. I’m incredibly glad that we sold our house and moved to a condo in Evanston when our younger son went to college. If not for my diagnosis, I might have hemmed and hawed a little more about the move and postponed it to a future time out of concern for keeping things the same for the boys when they return for breaks. Instead, we made the decision quickly and this allowed becoming an empty nester to be more of a new beginning than an ending. It worked out fine having both our sons home for Thanksgiving in our condo!

Before I know it, the boys will be home again for winter break, which will be several weeks as opposed to just a few days. I very much look forward to this, even though I know again that I will have mixed feelings over the holidays, remembering the days from eight years ago that led to my diagnosis on December 26th and the first meeting with my thoracic oncologist in early January. I always try to manipulate my schedule so that I don’t end up in the hospital having scans during this time of the year and luckily, my next scans are not scheduled until late January 2022.

In the meantime, I am in search of the sun! In past pre-COVID years, we have traveled to warmer, sunnier locations to celebrate my December cancerversary. This year, we won’t be leaving the country, but I still haven’t given up the possibility of a last-minute long-weekend trip somewhere!

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