Saturday, 31 December 2016

Reflections on my chemotherapy Christmas and an alternative end of year message

Since Christmas my fingers have been practically twitching to write. But there have been other priorities which have taken all my time and my very limited energy.
  • Returning the house to some semblance of order, which has required multiple trips to Argos and an ill-conceived and narrowly aborted venture to IKEA for new storage solutions
  • Finding homes of the latest influx of much-treasured, multi-coloured plastic/wood/glitter-coated hoard of toys. (Repeat above requirements for more inventive storage solutions).
  • Finding out how to start and stop the overly complicated, long-awaited ‘pink doll’ from crying, talking and wetting herself. Thank you Santa. Oh wait. Only got myself to blame for that one.
  • Inventing genius culinary combinations to rid the fridge of the turkey carcass and the half-mangled Stilton which now looks like a garish disused marble quarry, the smooth rockface hacked at and hewn by teaspoon and cracker into cheesy craggs and crumbs.

I suspect my situation is common to many households. After the Christmas mayhem comes the cathartic clear-up operation.

Only in my house the build-up and the main event were rather more muted for me this year.

Normally I’d be belting out Christmas tunes on repeat from early December, writing cards, decking the hall, etc. More importantly, I’d be re-perfecting the dance moves painstakingly choreographed by cassette (pause, rewind, repeat) many years past to Mariah Carey’s ‘All I want for Christmas is yoooooooouuuuu’ ready for the arrival of my festive partner in crime – my sister.

Only this year I didn’t have the energy or the inclination for such jollity. On the 23rd I was very much still in the ‘zombie zone’ as I now affectionately term my ‘chemo come-down’ which seems to take around 2-3 days after the 3 days of active chemotherapy.

‘Pump-off’ is the joyous moment when I am physically unplugged. Two days on from my hospital chemo session and I can move around without dragging my bumbag of drugs with me. However, then follows the decompression period. Kept artificially high for days with steroids, (which also have the upside of vomit-prevention), the low is pretty low indeed.

I’m not going to lie – I was pretty down about my inability to climb out of bed, to join in with Christmas meal planning, to enthuse about Santa with my over-excited daughter. But tears are allowed at Christmas, and my family could not have been more supportive about my physical and mental limitations this year.

It’s an odd feeling not being able to pull your weight. I know Christmas is all about TEAM. But my favourite team is the one I’m leading. Luckily years improving my self-awareness have given me a full understanding of my many weaknesses, and with advancing years I’m getting better at playing other roles too. I have even (on rare occasions) successfully played sous-chef. But let’s be honest. Not often.

So this Christmas was strange. I didn’t go and collect the turkey and eye-wateringly expensive fillet of beef. I didn’t peel potatoes. I didn’t wash up. I didn’t plan or prepare meals, bake mince pies or really do anything useful.

At some level this was blissful. You’re probably all screaming at your screens in jealousy reading this. But if you’re used to being in the trenches, it’s odd standing was back from the front lines simply observing.

Still. I’m sure I’ll be back on duty in future years. This is just a blip. Or so I have reminded myself many times as I’ve sought to enjoy the rest that my body so desperately needs.

On the upside, from the genuine and emotional trough of the 23rd, the 24th was an improvement. A cautious and tentative upturn towards mental acuity. I may even have had the strength to argue for control of the kettle to make a round of tea mid-afternoon.

I also made it to a Crib Service. In my book, Christmas is not Christmas without carol singing. Midnight Mass is way beyond my bedtime these days, but a child-friendly nativity number complete with optional fancy dress, audience participation and carols (minus descants I hasten to add) was pretty lovely. It was my first real moment of getting ‘in the mood.’

My second moment came at 2.28am. Pitter patter of tiny feet on our wooden floor.
Mummy? Has Santa been?’
Me: Groan. Roll. Grope for phone (2.28am). Big groan. ‘I’m not sure. It’s still nighttime. Go back to bed.
No physical response from daughter. Selective hearing runs in the family.
But are the reindeer on my roof? I think I heard them.’
My inner child shrieked with festive glee and I relented and invited her to join me in bed.

Three hours and several bedtime (?) stories later and I finally got her back into her own bed asleep. (Every previous attempt at sleep having been foiled by kicking, thrashing around, or further curious questions).
Is Yogo (our resident Elf on the Shelf) back from the North Pole? Where is she today? Have the reindeer eaten my carrots? Has Santa been to see …. (insert friend / brother / granny / relative name)?

All very endearing and magical. But exhausting.

I suspect without this early interruption I might actually have genuinely felt ‘normal’ on Christmas day. But hey, it was worth it for that tiny moment of joy at 2.28am when I too was so very excited by the magic of Christmas that only young children can truly evoke.

Thrilling as all of this may be, I will spare you all a blow by blow account of my own festivities and will instead explain why a Christmas on chemo is not all bad.

Firstly, I have been spared the temptation of excess drinking. Not worth it. My liver has enough toxins to process and my taste buds don’t tingle at the thought of port. I have sipped champagne and various other alcoholic elixirs and enjoyed a mere nip of each. Done. No hangover for me. (Mental high five!)

I have also been spared the guilt that traditionally accompanies festive overeating.

Don’t get me wrong, I too have overeaten and filled my boots and belly with chocolate, cheese, beef and all other manner of naughty delicacies. Only I am feeling totally guilt-free.

Warning: This next part is a little dark.

Post-surgery and mid-chemo (how I wish I was truly at the midway through chemo not a mere 2 of 12 sessions down) I am still light. Lighter even than the day I got married.

Clearly I would willingly and joyfully take back a stone in weight, maybe even two or three if I could choose an alternative non-cancer path for myself. But this is my path, so I may as well revel in the fact that cancer has robbed me of those pesky excess pounds.

I have always wondered who on earth has legs skinny enough to fit into those ‘super skinny’ jeans in Primark that I once picked up by accident and couldn’t face the hassle of returning. Now I know. Cancer has few silver linings, but if my buttocks have miraculously shrunk and people tell me I’m looking good. Well, I will celebrate that with guilt-free Christmas feasting.

However, the biggest cause for celebration is the perspective shift. All the clich├ęs here ring true, especially at Christmas. At a time when everyone is busy and stressed enough finishing work, hastily preparing for their own family celebrations, those that spared a moment to send small tokens of love and support my way will be forever etched into my heart and memory.

The cleansing juice delivered to my doorstep on Christmas eve to aid detoxification, the freezer food generously prepared by friends, the Christmas cards that went beyond the standard tidings of goodwill to send personal messages of hope. These are the things that I will cherish from this Christmas. My chemo-cancer Christmas.

Thought and sentiment have always carried more weight for me than lavish gifts. Of course, being spoilt rotten is glorious (I’d be shooting myself in the foot to say otherwise). But this year more than ever I’ve realised that the gift of time is more precious than anything else.

My brother-in-law and sister truly slaved for hours in the kitchen to create Christmas lunch. My mother ran herself ragged for days keeping the kids occupied and cared for. My husband cleared up again, and again, and again. My list could go on and on with family members and friends to thank and feel grateful too. I tried to find the words over Christmas toasts to say ‘thank you’ but I couldn’t trust my voice not to break up, and tears welled up as I even considered forming the words aloud. If I’d cried, others would have cried too. So I stayed quiet.

Every sunrise photo shared, every text, note and gift has felt poignant to me. Little things that mean someone has taken a moment, be that seconds, minutes or hours to show their support.

As we all reflect on the year gone past and set expectations for the year ahead my alternative Christmas message is therefore this.


Humanity is a wondrous thing. Time is a wonderful gift. Time taken to share and express your own humanity is glorious indeed. Do it more, each and every day.

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