Cancer changes his Christmas, but can't take away his joy

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A Christmas card drawn by Tom's daughter Amelie.

I love Christmas. Its sights, its sounds, its traditions, its childhood memories. I can remember getting SO excited for it each year as a child – it was the highlight of the entire year for me. I want my own kids to experience that same excitement, generate those same memories to look back upon decades later in their own lives.

I remember my first Christmases as a new father, when my oldest daughter was a toddler. I started trying to replicate many of my own Christmas memories into our family routine to carry on those fond traditions.

Then, right before my oldest daughter’s fifth birthday, I was diagnosed with cancer. No Christmas would ever be the same. That first cancer Christmas, instead of focusing on traditions, I was focused on obtaining a chemotherapy cure, the ultimate gift from Santa. I was so sick on chemotherapy that first Christmas, I can’t even clearly remember the holiday. But since my daughter was so young, I tried to hide my sickness the best I could.

She told me “it was the best Christmas ever."

Cancer doesn’t take away Christmas. It does change it, however, in so many ways – emotionally, psychologically, and physically. This will be my fourth Christmas as a cancer patient. I use that word here instead of survivor because I have been an active patient for every Christmas, 4 years straight now. None of them have been like Christmases I remember as a child.

Some years, I have been so sick from the treatment, the holiday kind of went on with me in the background. Other years, I have been at a point in my treatment cycle where I felt good and I tried to hyperactively pack in as many “Dad Christmas memories” as possible. Two ends of the spectrum, yet each in their own way Christmases impacted by cancer.

This year I am dealing with significant fatigue and pain. The other day, I could hear from my bedroom the squeals of my daughters laughing as they made their own Christmas childhood memories. I was too exhausted and in too much pain to leave the bed.

But then a small Christmas miracle happened.

The girls poked their heads into my bedroom. They asked if it was OK for them to come in and show me their Christmas crafts. Of course it was, I told them.

They both jumped into the bed to snuggle.

The pain of the tumor in my back squealed as it was moved in ways it did not want to be moved.

But my brain squealed in joy as the family was together for a few minutes in bed, feeling like the best Christmas memory possible.

I hope you make your own best holiday memories this year, even if they don't come in the ways you had planned.

 

Dr. Tom Marsilje is a 20-year oncology drug discovery scientist with “currently incurable” stage IV colon cancer. He also writes a personal blog on life at the intersection of being both a cancer patient and researcher “Adventures in Living Terminally Optimistic,” a science column for Fight Colorectal Cancer "The Currently Incurable Scientist", and posts science and advocacy updates to Twitter@CurrentIncurSci. This guest column appears on Diagnosis: Cancer through our partnership with Inspire, an Arlington, Va., company with condition-specific online support communities for over 900,000 patients and caregivers.


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