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My Top 5 Tips for Surviving the Holidays as a Cancer Mama

A three hour wait in the walk-in clinic (to do: find a GP) to hear that it appears I have one of the worst cases of strep throat ever....but a negative strep culture. Bah humbug. At least the doctor was willing to treat it. I was feeling exhausted and defeated by the time I got home.

And then this:

Christmas music. Our old playlist from 2010. Jason singing at full volume while he cooked dinner. The kids catching onto the words as they danced with uninhibited toddler/preschool enthusiasm. Love. So much love.

Before you accuse us of domestic perfection, everyone was still in pajamas. Dinner was scrambled eggs. We're surviving flu season, the holidays and ongoing cancer treatment here, folks. Priorities.


I spent a lot of time defining these over the long Thanksgiving weekend. I wanted to step into the Christmas season with realistic expectations of what we can handle as a family with three young children. What I can handle as a cancer survivor.

When it comes to creating Christmas traditions with our young family, we have a rather clean slate. At this time two years ago, we were finishing our move into the Pink Door House. We had a new(ish) baby who wouldn't sleep and had stopped gaining weight. I felt weak and sick. We were a month and a half away from knowing this was all due to Inflammatory Breast Cancer. And then last year, I spent November and December in Houston for radiation treatment at MDAnderson.

But we find ourselves together. Together, as healthy as we can hope to be, and ready to cherry pick the best (or most critical) elements of survival and celebration.

We settled on these five:

1. Handmade Holiday

When Jason and I started talking about how we wanted to spend our time this month, one thing rose to the top.

We could pour some whiskey, open up Amazon, and check off our gift-giving list in one buzzy night. But that's just not us. We are Makers. Creators. Builders. Crafters. It is important to us to treat the people we love with things that are imagined and created by our hearts and hands.

And yet. We also have to be honest with ourselves about how time consuming this is. Which brings me to....

2. Choosing my Battles *or*

Living with the Mount Everest of Unfolded Laundry

How to keep three children alive:

Feed their bellies with nutritious food.

Ensure they get adequate rest.

Pile on the love.

I assure you, nowhere on any list like this does it say "provide crisp unwrinkled tees and pajamas" or "Vacuum All the Carpets, All the Time." Confession: an abundance of chaos makes me a bit twitchy. But for a month, for one month, I can do this. I can let the dishes slide. I can leave a hamper of unmatched socks sitting for days (clean unmatched socks...we're not savages!). I've picked one surface to corral all the craft projects the kids and I have going. Okay, one and a half surfaces. And it all stays out. Glitter and beads. Cookie cutters and salt dough. Glue and paint. In broad daylight. Just like that.

I saw this on a tote at JoAnn's last week and about fell over in the aisle:

Yes. This is us.

3. Menu Planning

This goes along with choosing my battles. With all the extra time allotted to crafting and baking and wrapping, I am still committed to cooking from scratch. Providing my family with whole, unprocessed foods. Representing a balance of nutrition with each meal.

For the next month, I've planned out crock pot meals and simple ways to use leftovers. (Pinterest is a great resource for this.) Late morning, while everyone is fresh, I can measure, dump, and go. By evening, dinner has finished making itself.

Because I've found that by early evening, It All Hits the Fan around here. The Craftermath has taken on a life of it's own. There are scraps of paper and sequins stuck to the table...and how did you get glitter there? Eli wakes up from his nap Hangry....the girls are getting a little tired, irritable, bored....I've hit an afternoon slump (and it's far too late to caffeinate). In most households like ours, this is the time of day when Daddy rides in on his shining stallion, ready to distract and engage the Littles long enough for Mommy to throw together dinner. In our house, however, Daddy works swings, and Mommy is both Damsel in Distress and Knight in Shining Armor, schlepping solo through the Witching Hour.

Added bonus, little hands enjoy adding ingredients to prep these dishes. London and Eli arranged these carrots and brussel sprouts.

Crock pot for the win!

4. Self Care

Oh Christmas Cookie, Oh Christmas Cookie, how tasty is your frosting.............

*Sigh* If only it weren't so.

For the first few years of parenthood, like most moms, I put myself last. As a cancer patient, I discovered the importance of striking a balance. So even when it is a sub-arctic 12 degrees, I am dragging myself to yoga in the early mornings. And you know what? That hot, hot yoga studio feels better than ever when it's this cold outside!

I started scheduling my physical therapy appointments directly following yoga, making it easier to commit to both. I also communicated to my physical therapist some of the challenges I face at home...ok, the One Big Challenge....which is taking time for myself to do the stretches and strength gaining exercises she's assigned. This open line of communication means she doesn't have unrealistic expectations of my progress, we fit in more repetitions during my session because she recognizes it's My Time, and (bless her!) she helps me incorporate chores, or games with the kids, into some of my home exercises.

My strength and stamina haven't returned to my pre-cancer days. But staying on this course is helping.

5. Meaningful Traditions and Memories

See above note regarding strength and stamina.

Hey Mamas, whether you are perfectly healthy with a houseful of Littles, or in the thick of cancer treatment, or living with the aftermath of cancer treatment, don't bite off more than you can chew! (Here's looking at you, "Elf on the Shelf"!)

Each family is going to fill this bucket with their own choices. These are ours:

Decorating the tree together

Yes, this meant 2/3 of our ornaments ended up on the bottom 1/3 of our tree. It also meant taking two days to finish. Don't judge.

Cookies cookies cookies!

Christmas baking dominates my childhood holiday memories. My Mom is a hobby pastry chef (her own grandparents owned a bakery), every year turning out beautiful and delicious cookies and candies, and gifting them to friends and family. I remember watching, helping a bit, and of course, tasting the "ugly ones." In this house they're all ugly ones...I may have Mom's recipes, but I lack her patience, precision, and willingness to reign in my enthusiastic sous chefs. But nonetheless, we are creating sweet memories. And as far as I'm concerned, that's what matters most.

Playing in the Snow

Another favorite from my own childhood. I remember hours spent sledding and building snowmen with my Dad. I'm so thankful that we live close enough to Mom and Dad that my kids are creating the same memories with their Papa, as well as with their own Daddy.

Christmas Movies

There is no end to the joy I feel watching Jason snuggled up on the sofa with our babies, reliving his childhood through Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Frosty the Snowman, and Charlie Brown. No end.

Creating Handmade Gifts

My kids have been ornament making machines this year. Right now, they think all of these new decorations are intended for our own tree. But I feel like each year they'll have a better understanding of what we are doing--and for whom.


Ah, be still my heart. Certain songs bring me back to that house in red velvet dresses, multi-colored lights on tall, fresh-cut Charlie Brown trees. And later (and this is a big one), falling in love. Jason and I had been seeing each other for about a month and a half when he showed up at my door, guitar in hand, to sing Christmas carols in front of my tree. The rest is history.

Which is why I was a sentimental puddle that evening a few weeks ago when I walked in on Jason serenading the scrambled eggs.

Do your favorite Christmas traditions involve sharing music? Wearing pajamas all day? Perhaps family meals carefully crafted by hand? Or a simple pan of scrambled eggs for dinner?

When life is at it's busiest, or perhaps you're not feeling well, how do you decide what is most important for surviving...and celebrating...the holiday season?

You can follow my Pinterest boards, including Slow Cooker recipes, cooked from scratch soups and cookies, and loads of ideas for crafting with the Littles, here.

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