Cancer Doesn’t Take a Christmas Break

holiday_resilience1Last week, I watched the hit Fall TV show, “This is Us.”  In this episode, one of the main characters, when faced with a health crisis of one of her children, reassured the child by saying, “Nothing bad ever happens on Christmas Eve.”

What a lovely thought.  Wouldn’t it be nice if we could tell cancer to bug off for the month of December?  We could be free to focus on joy, happiness, family, faith, traditions, and the magic of the holiday season.

Sadly, cancer doesn’t have an off button…or even a pause button. We still need to get to treatment, cope with painful or challenging side effects, and make difficult decisions.  We still bear witness to our family and friends who are suffering as a result of their cancer diagnosis and treatment—even in December.

And yes, bad stuff happens – even on Christmas Eve, on Christmas day, throughout Hanukkah and Kwanzaa and on New Year’s Day.

I remember years ago, when I was working on an inpatient oncology unit, we lost a patient on Christmas day.  He had two young children.  All I could think was, “well, Christmas is ruined for them for the rest of their life…their dad died on Christmas day.” In reality, the children were resilient and learned to cope with the anniversary of their father’s death, while still being able to enjoy the magic and meaning of Christmas.  And from those kids, I think we can learn something that can help us cope with the bad stuff that is bound to happen during the holiday season.


Resilience is defined as

  1. The capability of a strained body to recover its size and shape after deformation caused especially by compressive stress.
  2. An ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change. (

Many (if not most) individuals have a natural capacity for resilience. We are hard wired resilient beings.  The capacity for resilience helps us to mend after a stressful event or loss.  From a cancer diagnosis, to the loss of hair, to the loss of a loved one- resilience helps us to recuperate through the use of our own natural reserves of strength, understanding, and meaning.

George Bonnano, a clinical psychologist, has done extensive studies into the impact of our natural capacity for resilience toward grief, loss and bereavement.  He writes:

“Under normal circumstances, most of us cruise through our busy days without the slightest thought of life and death and those other annoying existential questions, like where we came from and where we stand in the grand scheme of the universe.  The death of a loved one tends to peel back the curtain on those existential questions, at least temporarily, and begs us to take a larger view of the world and our place in it (The Other Side of Sadness: What the New Science of Bereavement Tells Us About Life After Loss, pp. 8).”

And that is what is happening to us as we cope with the bad stuff during the holidays…we are tapping into our resilience to help balance the good and the bad; the happy and the sad.   I expected those children to be traumatized FOR LIFE, by the death of their father on Christmas day.  The grief they experienced was hard—but it didn’t overpower them.  Perhaps their innocence, their age, their minimal exposure to other traumatic experiences made it easier for them.  But more likely, their capacity for resilience as a coping mechanism is what helped them the most.

So, this holiday season, if you are struggling with not having a cancer off button, think of your own capacity for resilience as your partner through it all…even the bad things that are bound to happen during the month of December.




One thought on “Cancer Doesn’t Take a Christmas Break

  1. Thank you for talking about resilience at this time of year. I have found that for me I can shut the cancer off for small periods of time. That way I can enjoy the holidays in bits and pieces instead of trying to do all of it and then being miserable. I have learned that if I prioritize the things that bring me the most joy and save up my energy to enjoy those things, I can forget about my cancer for a bit. I also try to look my best, or wear the silliest holiday outfit I can put together, so others can also look beyond my cancer for a little while.

    We all have to learn tricks and ways to enjoy our life no matter the circumstances. Having cancer and going through the treatment for it doesn’t have to mean the end of joy.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.