Newspaper article The Canadian Press

Festive Season Can Be Challenging for Those with Cancer and Their Loved Ones

Newspaper article The Canadian Press

Festive Season Can Be Challenging for Those with Cancer and Their Loved Ones

Article excerpt

Christmas challenging when cancer strikes family


TORONTO - It's considered, as the song says, the most wonderful time of the year. But for those coping with cancer and for their loved ones, Christmas and the holiday season can be fraught with emotion, remembering what was and, for some, what may never be again.

Christmas is an emotionally loaded time of year for many people -- even those without cancer, says Nancy Payeur, a peer support team leader at the BC Cancer Agency's Vancouver Island Centre in Victoria.

"For cancer patients, Christmas can be loaded because they're reminded of some of the things they can't do or won't be able to do," says Payeur, pointing to often-debilitating fatigue and other effects from treatment and the disease itself.

"And that might really highlight for them the losses, the changes, the difficulties they're going through and what cannot be this year."

Brittany Boniface and her fiance Steve Shaw, both 26, were looking forward to their first Christmas in a new home in Hamilton when he was diagnosed with aggressive testicular cancer and went through almost three months of chemotherapy that ended in early December last year.

"So we had all these plans, you know, to do the big Christmas tree and the house and the big Christmas party, but unfortunately he was too weak to be able to put up the lights outside or to help decorate the tree like we'd wanted to or do our home," Boniface says.

"It changed a lot of our plans. We couldn't visit with family as much as we'd like to because of the germs," she says, explaining that treatment had suppressed Shaw's immune system, leaving him vulnerable to potentially life-threatening infections.

Boniface took a leave from her job to care for her partner, including spending eight hours a day at the hospital with him while he received chemotherapy.

"It really took a toll on us emotionally and physically," she says, though their spirits were lifted by phone calls and online support from family and friends.

"But there still was that fear of the unknown ... just because he'd finished the treatment, it didn't mean that he was in the clear, it didn't mean that things were good. And we weren't going to find that out until after Christmas."

"So as much as we tried to be positive and really enjoy the Christmas spirit, it was really difficult some days because we just didn't know: Is it gone? Is it still inside of him? That was always on the top of our minds and it's really hard to push that away."

In the end, however, they decided to invite their families for Christmas, and the guests pitched in to prepare dinner.

"We did take a big risk in having people come over (but) we just wanted to be with family more than anything that day," Boniface recalls. "It was the most special Christmas that we've ever had and the most emotional Christmas that we've ever had."

Still, there's no doubt that contending with cancer while surrounded by the sights and sounds of the holiday, and with everyone else seemingly full of joy, can lead to feelings of isolation and depression.

Some people seek solace from support programs such as those provided by the Canadian Cancer Society, says Sara Schneiderman, a senior peer support specialist for the organization's Hamilton branch.

"I can't say that over the holiday period we have a definitive increase in calls, but it's the needs of the clients I find become more pressing and more poignant," says Schneiderman, whose program connects volunteer survivors with cancer patients and former caregivers with patients' loved ones.

With the holiday season evoking childhood memories of magical Christmases past and the connection to religious traditions, those facing cancer can feel lonely, scared and in need of comfort, she says.

"And of course most people are looking for hope. And so to be able to reach out and talk to somebody else who's been through an experience that's similar to theirs -- and to hear that that person is post-treatment and is doing well -- can be very encouraging, especially if they're feeling lonely and they don't have a very good support network. …

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