When Cancer Meets Christmas: Navigating the Holidays When a Loved One is Sick

MARISSA HENLEY|GUEST

I met my sister-in-law for the first time while receiving a blood transfusion on Christmas Eve. My brother brought her home for Christmas while she was still his girlfriend and I was two months into a battle with a rare cancer called angiosarcoma.

They came to the hospital as soon as they arrived in town, and I’ll admit—it was a little awkward. I wanted to show interest in this woman who had stolen my baby brother’s heart. I craved connection with her and with my brother, too.

But as the bag of blood dripped into the central line in my chest, I realized I had no emotional energy to give to my visitors. I was fatigued by the chemo, discouraged by bad news I had received a few days before, and wondering if this would be my last Christmas with my husband and young children. The year before, my husband’s sister had battled breast cancer during the holidays. So I knew from experience that when cancer meets Christmas, it’s difficult for everyone.

If you’re a family member of someone battling cancer this year, you’ve probably already been affected by your loved one’s diagnosis and treatment. You may wonder or even worry about how to handle the impacts of this tough situation during the holidays. I’ve been the one who is sick, and I’ve also been the family member wondering how to respond. I’d love to walk alongside you with a few suggestions.

Prepare yourself (and your children)

If you haven’t seen your loved one since her diagnosis, you may be hit with a wave of shock, pain, and sadness. She may look different due to hair loss, weight gain, or weight loss, and these changes can magnify the impact of that first meeting. Take some time to prepare yourself emotionally. Pray and cry if you need to. If you have young children, prepare them to see their relative looking different, especially if she has lost her hair.

Understand her mixed emotions

When I had cancer, I wanted to celebrate the holidays just as we had before. But everything had changed, and I didn’t know if life would ever return to normal. I was a mess of intense emotions.

Not all my overwhelming feelings were negative. I had so much to be thankful for, even in my suffering. I loved celebrating the birth of my Savior—the source of my desperately needed, never-failing hope. I cherished the time with my husband, children, and extended family.

But I worried I was ruining Christmas for everyone with my tears, baldness, looming months of treatment, and uncertain prognosis. My family members were loving and supportive, but I knew that my illness brought pain into their lives and their holidays.

I was terrified and saddened by an unanswered question: How many more holidays do I have with my family before the Lord takes me home? It was difficult to look around the room at my parents and siblings and know that I wasn’t the only one silently asking the question.

Depending on the closeness of your relationship with her, your family member with cancer may or may not open up to you about her feelings. If she shares her struggles, listen patiently and compassionately without trying to offer a solution. Just remind her of your love for her and, when appropriate, point her to the truth of God’s promises to her.

Match your family member’s tone

You may wonder if you should be joyful and celebratory, or if you should tone down the holiday hype in light of what your loved one is enduring. This is a tough issue, and there isn’t one infallible answer.

Most cancer patients want to have their situation acknowledged, but they also crave normalcy. When you first see your family member, I’d recommend asking how she’s feeling that day or telling her how sorry you were to hear of her diagnosis (if you haven’t already discussed it).

After your initial interaction with her, I’d recommend trying to match her tone. Listen carefully to her comments. Is she saying, “I don’t want to bring everyone down”? Reassure her that you’re glad she’s there with you, and then carry on with the festive mood. Is she emotional, sick, or sad? Then a muted celebration might be more appropriate. Keep in mind that her tone may change from day to day, or even hour to hour. Which brings me to my next suggestion . . .

Be flexible

Cancer treatment and its side effects don’t respect the calendar. Most patients don’t get to take a break from treatment for Thanksgiving or Christmas. And they definitely don’t get to decide which days they feel well and which days they don’t. (Trust me, this lack of control is one of the many difficulties your loved one is facing right now.)

You can support your loved one by being flexible with your plans. Maybe you’ve always eaten Christmas dinner at your grandmother’s house, but this year your family member with cancer would like to celebrate at her house. Maybe she needs to celebrate with you on a different day due to her treatment schedule. Maybe she needs to draw names for gifts rather than getting gifts for everyone because of high medical bills or time away from work. Let her know that her comfort and presence with you are more important than your traditions, and be open to last-minute changes.

Give lavish grace and quick forgiveness

Most importantly, don’t shy away from the awkward moments or from uncertainty. Keep moving toward your family member with love and seeking to understand her.

I’m thankful that my brother and sister-in-law made an effort to come see me at the hospital that day. It’s not how I imagined my relationship with my brother’s future wife would begin. I knew it was difficult for her to walk into a family bogged down with grief, pain, and exhaustion. None of us did a great job of getting to know her that Christmas. But she was patient and understanding with us, and I’m grateful for the friendship we’ve built over the years.

If your loved one turns down your pumpkin pie, fails to congratulate you on your recent promotion, or hurts your feelings with an impatient remark, be quick to give grace and forgiveness. If you’ve made it this far in this article, I probably don’t have to tell you that she has a lot on her mind right now. She will appreciate your loving patience and kindness.

As you approach the holidays, be prepared, flexible, empathetic, compassionate, and quick to forgive. It won’t be easy, but we know that the Lord will meet all your family’s needs according to His glorious riches in Christ Jesus (Phil. 4:19). As suffering drives your gaze to the One who suffered and died for you, this may just be your most precious Christmas yet.

About the Author:

Marissa Henley

Marissa Henley is a Christ-follower, wife, and mom of three who lives in Northwest Arkansas. Following her battle with rare cancer, she wrote the book Loving Your Friend through Cancer to encourage and equip the body of Christ to provide meaningful support to others. Most days, you’ll find her drinking a latte while shuttling her three kids around town, wondering if the dog will ever learn to stay and if she’ll ever love cooking as much as her husband loves eating. She would love to connect with you on social media or at www.marissahenley.com.

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