December first(ish) marks the start of my holiday season.   The lights go on, the mantel is decorated, the tree goes up.

Tra-la-la-la-la!

Our fireplace mantel, decorated with greenery and vintage Christmas children's books.

In our house, we celebrate Christmas and New Year’s Eve at this time of year.  We are more spiritual than religious but we still have family gatherings and dates with friends, snow-filled New-Year’s Eves at a favourite place in the deep, deep woods, and stockings filled with chocolate that you’re allowed to eat for breakfast (it’s a rule).  Some years, we have a festive gathering in December, where we invite friends and family to join us at our wildly festooned house for snacks and visiting but this year, things are a bit different.

This year, we have an extra visitor and it’s the visitor no one wants.

Practical Man was diagnosed with cancer in September and started treatment in November.  He’s supposed to be finished the actual treatments on December 20 (Merry Christmas!) but the side effect symptoms likely continue to worsen for a few weeks after that.  His type of cancer has a good prognosis (everyone keeps telling us) so we’re hoping that this “blip” will be something we will simply remember years from now as “that time he had cancer”.

Say it enough and that will someday become a sentence that just rolls off the tongue, right?

Anyhoo.

Throat (oropharyngeal) cancer may be quite curable but the recovery from it seems especially cruel — the treatments wants to attack your speech, your skin, your swallowing, your saliva, your breathing, your nourishment and YOUR BEARD!  Food tastes terrible and he chokes quite frequently and he is more tired than I’ve ever seen him.  But, his treatment is manageable at the moment, if he rests.  What the final few weeks will bring, we don’t know.

It could be a lot worse.  We tell ourselves this with every new symptom and struggle. We are grateful that we can be together through this, without worry over money or time.  We are fortunate not to have to forgo food or housing to find the funds needed every day for parking or new creams or medicines that could help.  We are blessed to have supportive family and friends and to be enduring treatment with a likely positive outcome.

Lucky, lucky, lucky.

“You’re getting to the hard part now,” they said this week.

His “team” keeps close tabs on his symptoms and weight, prescribing jams and jellies with long names and lineups at the pharmacy.  When you’re using the over-burdened Canadian healthcare system and you have a TEAM that meets with you every week, you get the idea that it’s fairly serious business. He endures the mask of torture with each of his 35 treatments and never complains, even though I see the toll it takes on him to be pinned to a table under an extremely tight web of fibres across his face and throat.

Practical Man in the treatment mask

The Team warns constantly of the “cumulative effects of radiation” and what’s to come with worried eyes and check-ins that make my stomach drop out.  He made it through a rare arterial hemorrhage, surgery to fix it, and repeated hospital visits and stays in week #2 of treatment.

But, that was early days–the supposedly “easy” part of treatment.

“You’re doing really well,” they also said this week, their tone telling us not to get complacent.

Despite everything that has already happened, I constantly feel like we are waiting for something large and mysterious to come down the chimney–and it’s not Santa.

Christmas tree - daytime

When the treatment dates were revealed, it got me thinking about what our holiday season would look like this year.  We have no children of our own, so who would miss it, if we didn’t bother with the lights going on, the mantel being decorated, the tree going up?

Practical Man endures the holiday palooza for me.  He wouldn’t mind skipping it.  So, why do it?

Um…have you met me?  The one who loves little more than some seasonally-approved festooning?

Still, maybe we should just forgo the lot for this year, I thought.  Decorations are really superficial, after all.  He won’t feel well enough to attend many gatherings and we anticipate the height of pain and symptoms to be around Christmas Day.  We should just skip it.

But, but, but.

A thought caught my breath in my throat:  what if?

What if we were like my friend?  Her daughter took her last breath on Monday as her body rejected the lungs that were transplanted in her only last year.

My heart breaks.

What if we were like others we know of who endure radiation and chemotherapy and still face a terminal outcome?

More breaking.

What if?

Would I want this Christmas to be festooned and full of light?

Or dark and passed over, as not worth the effort?

I realize how fortunate we are to worry about something so seemingly trivial.  But, when I called it “silly”, Practical Man pointed out:

“If you turn off the lights before it’s time, you may never find a reason to turn them back on.”

And our decision to partake in the sparkle of the season is not to say everyone should do it this way.  But, I am a silly, festive-loving person and even if the holiday festooning is a bit much for him, Practical Man loves that about me.

And I love him.  So very much.

The lights are up and they get to stay on.  Which reminds me again:

Despite this very cancer Christmas, we are so very blessed.

Merry Christmas and Happy Festive Season to all who celebrate at this time of year.
Our wish for you this year is a most precious one:  good health for you and your loved ones.

Lit tree reflected again the window

Know someone who is thinking about becoming a doctor?  My new book, “Just What the Doctor Ordered:  The Insider’s Guide to Getting into Medical School in Canada” is now available.

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