Remember to Sing in the Lifeboats

By Heather Millar

Editor’s Note: The following blog article first appeared December 19, 2012 in “Cancer Realities: From Diagnosis and Treatment to Remission and Survival” on WebMD. ©2012, WebMD, LLC. All rights reserved.

The headline above is a quote from “Anonymous,” one of my favorites from that prolific author. I’ve been thinking a lot about this idea, as the United States reels from the horrific mass shooting of first-graders and their teachers in Newtown, Connecticut.

Not long after the terrible news broke, I came across an Associated Press report that townspeople were taking down their Christmas decorations because they felt guilty to be celebrating after such a senseless and tragic loss of life.

I don’t mean to make light of the suffering in Newtown; I really can’t imagine the depth and breadth of the pain there. It’s every parent’s nightmare, and I hugged my daughter even more tightly after I heard the news. But this is the thing: I think taking down the Christmas decorations is exactly the wrong approach.

What does this have to do with the cancer patient experience? Well, getting a cancer diagnosis is a bit like having a crazed gunman burst into your life. It has many of the same elements: surprise, confusion, terror, fear of death, grief, horror. I’m not saying that my cancer experience is equivalent to what happened in Newtown, only that it’s similar.

Here’s my point: I did not take down my Christmas decorations the year I was in active treatment for cancer. I’ve always been a Christmas nut. I’m writing this post in a house where we have decorated just about every room. We’ve got lights on our lights, ribbons on our ribbons. We’ve turned the kitchen into a bakery and candy-making enterprise. My daughter is sewing Santa hats for the pets. Christmas Eve, we’re having more than a hundred people over for an open house that’s been a family tradition for three decades.

We did all this the year I was sick: I felt like a washed-out sock that year. I was scared, but with the help of friends and family, we had a big party anyway. We wrapped the presents, had the party, cooked the roast. We even managed a gingerbread house. I joked at the time that if the cancer didn’t kill me, Christmas would.

You might think this was insane. Maybe it was. But I think it was my way of standing up to cancer. I think that when we’re faced with great fear, or great peril, it’s important to respond with hope. It’s important to acknowledge your fear and confusion and pain, but then to try to be positive and joyful anyway.

I didn’t do this—I don’t do this—because I think it guarantees that everything will turn out all right. I don’t think there are guarantees, not for me, not for those grieving parents in Connecticut. But I try to be positive and hopeful because I think it makes life better. It makes living better.

You don’t have to believe in Jesus, or even to believe in God to understand this central theme of Christmas: It’s about raging against the dying of the light. It’s about the promise of spring returning after the darkest days. It’s about hope, and children, and colored lights, and gingerbread houses, and the gathering of family and friends. It’s about all these things happening in the depth of winter, in the darkest days of our hearts, in the savaged community of Newtown, Connecticut.

The world is scary. Cancer is scary. We still should remember to sing in the lifeboats. We still should celebrate, because life is precious, and too soon lost.

Merry Christmas, whatever your tradition.

Category: Cancer

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