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Andrea Paine


What Having Cancer Taught Me About Christmas

Posted: 12/06/2012 8:50 am

This is the time of year when life starts to slow down. Yes, the hustle and bustle of Christmas shopping, and getting ready for the holidays could be an Olympic sport in itself, but our mind has focused in; to family to being grateful, to peace and to love "'tis the season."

For some people the stress levels go up, though. There's the prospect of having so much to do and prepare prior to the holidays, or perhaps the impending arrival of family members. You have much anticipation, and hope for fun and stress free times. At the same time, sometimes just the jingle of a Christmas carol on the radio is enough to send you around the bend.

For cancer patients and survivours this time of year can be stressful as well. Five years ago I was a breast cancer patient who was in my third month of chemotherapy. I had three daughters between the ages of seven and 13 years old.

I was lucky.

I had been running through my treatment, and was in good shape, considering the circumstances, and had enough energy. I had also decided to keep working full time. But with Christmas on the horizon, I had this self imposed additional burden to do what I had always done in the past. With the difficulty of my cancer diagnosis, surgeries and chemotherapy, I wanted the girls to experience normalcy. I wanted us to be like we were prior to the "c" word happening and disrupting our lives.

We did have a nice Christmas that year, but the years that have gone by since then. My newfound wisdom as a cancer survivor has shed the light on a little secret: we don't have to do all that work. I'm sure my family would have been just as happy to stay home, be less busy, and receive fewer presents. I am also certain that all they really wanted was for me to be there -- alive -- with them.

So what did I learn? I learned that it was more important to spend the time with the people who count. I learned that it was just as important to take care of myself and spend some time in peaceful reflection during this season where work winds down, and we turn towards our loved ones. I learned that whatever stresses we have in our lives, including the struggle in the lives of cancer patients and survivours, should be pushed aside.

This is a time where we give thanks. For whomever you are, and whatever your circumstances of life, there is always something to be grateful for. And the surprising thing is that the more you are grateful, and give thanks, the more at peace your life will be.

So take your worry hat off, if only for awhile. Slow down and enjoy your holiday. Spend time with the ones who love and support you. Take in the awesome smells around you, and really taste the food you are offered. Meditate on your improving health and positive outlook. Walk your dogs. Feed your soul. This is just as much your time. Savour the magic.

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  • France

    "When I come home from a stressful day, I relax with a petit aperitif -- the French ceremony of having a small glass of wine with a side of cashew nuts or pita chips with hummus and olives. Then I'm ready to cook dinner!" -- <em>Ingrid Jackel, CEO of Physicians Formula; Toulouse</em> <strong>What you can do:</strong> "Wine is a relaxant, that's true, but more important is having a ritual to separate the chaos of work from the comfort of home," Domar says. Any ritual you look forward to will do the trick, whether you wash up and change into sweats or zone out with a game of Words with Friends.

  • Russia

    "Russians go to the <em>banya,</em> a hot sauna, and since moving here I do that, too. The daily stress level is high and work is constant. Just sitting in the extreme heat to sweat is a miracle invention to salve the soul." -- <em>Amanda Lynn Hinson, 35, writer; Khabarovsk</em> <strong>What you can do:</strong> Hit the shower -- and make it a warm one. Just a few minutes can wash away tension, and it's not just the feel of pulsating water on your skin: Research from Yale University indicates that the enveloping warmth you get from a hot shower can trigger brain and body responses that mirror emotional warmth, boosting your mood. Just get out after 10 minutes to avoid drying skin.

  • Denmark

    "It gets dark at 3:30 p.m. in the winter here, so Danes have gotten good at creating <em>hygge</em>, or 'cozy.' We come and go casually to each others' houses on evenings and weekends. It's about being happy at home with no one rushing to go anywhere." -- <em>Mette Borring, 48, finance executive; Copenhagen</em> <strong>What you can do:</strong> It's very simple, but key: Don't fuss too much. "One of my Secrets of Adulthood is: 'Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good,' and I apply this to entertaining," says Gretchen Rubin, author of <em>Happier at Home.</em> "If we worry about inviting people to the perfect holiday party, the task seems overwhelming. So I lower the bar to a manageable level. I had a holiday party that was dessert and drinks -- so much easier than serving dinner, and very festive!"

  • Thailand

    "Massage is a science here. It's often vigorous, with knees and elbows applying pressure, and much stress reduction." -- <em>Pam Sangsingkeo, 39, university lecturer; Bangkok</em> <strong>What you can do:</strong> Knead the nape of your neck and the surrounding area. "Stimulating pressure receptors releases serotonin, a natural antidepressant," says Tiffany Field, PhD, director of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami. Better yet: Get your partner to do it.

  • Argentina

    "People drink <em>maté,</em> a hot herbal drink, passing it around a circle of friends like a peace pipe. It makes me feel connected and strong, able to face down any stress." -- <em>Desirée Jaimovich, 35, journalist; Buenos Aires</em> <strong>What you can do:</strong> Forget social media; try social eating. Sharing food releases a surge of calming oxytocin, Belgian research shows. Notes anthropologist Michael Gurven, PhD, of the University of California–Santa Barbara: "Bonding over communal eats says, 'You're a valued part of my network.'" Skip the communal tea during flu season; think a pot of melted chocolate for S'mores (without double-dipping).

  • India

    "Every morning, I do a laughter exercise -- I smile, wave my hands, and jump. The more I do it, the more vital I feel." -- <em>Rashmi Vyas Aparajit, 45, health program director; Mumbai</em> <strong>What you can do:</strong> Yuk it up! The contracting stomach muscles trigger a surge of feel-good endorphins, according to a study from Oxford University. Even a couple of minutes of belly laughter can be calming -- a good reminder to tape your favorite late-night show and actually watch it.

  • Ireland

    "In the cold-weather months, it's not just a matter of bundling up our kids to get outside for fresh air -- you always find adults taking winter walks. It revives my brain and energizes me." -- <em>Phoebe Holmes, 40, blogger; Dublin</em> <strong>What you can do:</strong> Head outside for a brisk stroll. In a 2012 study, people who rode a stationary bike for 30 minutes and then saw disturbing photographs were less anxious than people who sat quietly before viewing the photos. "Exercise not only reduces anxiety, but helps you maintain that feeling when confronted with distressing events," says study author J. Carson Smith, Ph.D. With less mood-boosting natural light around, it's especially helpful to get outside. Dress for the weather (layers! Thinsulate!) and you'll truly enjoy it.

  • Sweden

    "In Sweden we enjoy <em>fika</em>, taking a coffee break with friends. It's been a part of our culture since the 1700s. In many companies, people take fika breaks around 10 a.m. and 3 p.m.; they head to a café for lattes, tea, or smoothies with a cinnamon roll, muffin, or macaron. Fika has something very friendly and peaceful about it." -- <em>Sarah Melin, 42, manager at a TV production company; Stockholm</em> <strong>What you can do:</strong> Program a break reminder into your smartphone, heed the beeps, and grab a friend for coffee in the office kitchen. Don't feel guilty for slacking off; in a study from MIT, people who got up to socialize during the work day ended up being 10 to 15 percent more productive than those who didn't.

  • China

    "Women do a foot soak called <em>zu yu</em> before bed. I put hot water in a big pot and sit on my sofa as I read a book or surf my Weibo, Chinese Twitter. Sometimes I lean back and fall asleep, it's so relaxing." -- <em>Frances Wu, 37, office clerk; Shanghai</em> <strong>What you can do:</strong> Soothe your mall-trodden feet with this remedy from Cornelia Zicu of Red Door Spa: Dunk feet up to the ankles in hot water in a plastic bin or the tub, adding a handful of Epsom salts and 2 spoonfuls of baking soda. "After 15 minutes, swelling goes down and circulation improves," Zicu says. "It's amazingly relaxing."

  • Turkey

    "We have <em>keyif</em>, which means relishing pleasurable things. I have <em>keyif</em> when I listen to music or stretch my legs. I'm in the moment and not thinking about anything stressful." -- <em>Asli Çavusoglu, 42, nonprofit program coordinator; Istanbul</em> <strong>What you can do:</strong> Distract your brain from whatever's riling you up. "Stressful thoughts often come from a presumption that something bad is going to happen," points out Ellen Langer, Ph.D., a Harvard psychology professor. "If you can focus on a positive, you can help derail those thoughts." Jot down a list of Good Things in your life on iPhone Notes, and eyeball it next time you have a holiday freak-out. Your iPod can also come in handy; in one study, people subjected to freezing-cold compresses were less likely to notice the discomfort when listening to music.


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