A merry little Christmas

“From now on, our troubles will be miles away,” says the Christmas carol.

Sensational indeed, all troubles will vanish when the Christmas feeling starts blowing them all away. It sounds perfect, simple, guaranteed, but it is not.

There is a large and growing population who find themselves facing a difficult challenge: celebrating holidays while simultaneously fighting a terminal or potentially terminal illness. We know that many families must navigate these emotionally difficult waters.

Modern medicine has literally transformed the nature of death and dying as we have understood these concepts for centuries.

What was, as little as 50 years ago, a relatively quick process, from terminal diagnosis to death, has increasingly been replaced by a lengthy process that may lead to remission, or at the very least to an extended life. However, this process, which has been described by more than one person as “learning to live with death”, differs from traditional mourning in two ways: it can go on for years, and it involves the patient and his or her family.

Christmas and possibly terminal illness

Many treatments have been developed and are being developed to combat what were once surely terminal illnesses. As an example, we know that between 20-30% of those diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer will at some point experience a recurrence.

Reality is that the idea of “surviving” cancer effectively means “surviving so far”. Of course, cancer survivors and those who are in treatment do not walk around consciously thinking this every minute of every day, but many acknowledge that they are aware that as a result of their treatment experience, they must live with a degree of uncertainty.

Treatments for potentially terminal illness like chemotherapy, radiation therapy or surgery often have pernicious and possibly debilitating side effects.

Patients and families who find themselves combating terminal illness need to make some decisions as to how they will celebrate the holidays ahead, given these realities.

The truly important things

It is in times of difficulties that people show who they really are, as in difficult times things are not easy and what you need does not drop from the sky. Difficulties can bring out the best in the essence of humans, their best capacity to give the right value to the really important things in life.

Sometimes the happiest people are the ones with nothing. We cannot lose sight of the little things in life that should make us the happiest, as it is the little details that are vital. Little things make big things happen.

Life is made up of little things, including smiles and kindness. These little big things are the main ingredients in the spirit of Christmas and they are what preserves the heart, secures comfort and prevents stress, keeping people happy and healthy, in body and mind.

Tradition and family

Coming down to reality, we must admit that people and real life do not change just because it is Christmas.

But tradition and family rituals are a safe harbour through a time of chaos, when living is not easy, helping us to run away from the frightening reality, that temporarily vanishes away as warm feelings grow inside our hearts, in front of the comforting warm flames of the fireplace, surrounded by family.

Making sense of Christmas

Luckily, there are still people who hope for more than presents at Christmas. It is like somehow returning to a time in childhood (or some other good time in the past), when life was simpler and made more sense, before the troubles of adult-life arrived.

Behind all the fun and decorations, there must be something more, some key to hope and happiness, a different way of viewing life.

We should look beyond the way Christmas is celebrated today, and keep this feeling going.

There is a real meaning behind the Christmas season that we all somehow feel, even though our intellect does not fully comprehend what all the fuss is about. This season really seems to bring up the forgotten, well-hidden, childlike innocence in all of us. Cynicism gives way to celebration when you participate in the rituals of the season, like when decorating your home or wrapping presents in pretty paper and bows whilst listening to Christmas carols.

Christmas is not an exclusively Christian holiday; it is the festival of the human heart. The best gift you can give to yourself and the world this Christmas is the gift of love, understanding and compassion.

Let the warmth of the Christmas spirit invade you. You will certainly feel better in yourself and with the people around you.

A merry and healthy little Christmas to you all.

Best health wishes,
Dr. Maria Alice

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Dr Maria Alice is a consultant in General and Family Medicine. General Manager/Medical Director – Luzdoc International Medical Service / Medilagos. Medical Director – Grupo Hospital Particular do Algarve