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Cancer and the Holidays

By Michael Eselun, BCC, Simms/Mann-UCLA Center for Integrative Oncology

As a chaplain walking beside folks living with cancer, there’s one thing I find in common with nearly everyone’s experience—there’s no shortage of people in our individual worlds it seems, who are so eager to tell us what to do, how to feel, what to eat, what to read, what to believe, what acupuncturist we need to see, or “My aunt had that and she’s just fine!” When we come upon the holiday season, and cancer is now a part of our world, we can add to all that an overwhelming cultural demand to feel a certain way—namely grateful, blessed, joyful. There’s simply no escaping it! While the carols and the TV commercials tell us how to feel, we bring our own memories and expectations to the mix as well, adding to the pressure. We simply may not have access to those feelings right now—cancer has brought disappointment, sadness, fear, and maybe anger and grief into the equation. We often compound our suffering by judging ourselves harshly for not feeling how we “should” feel or wish we could feel. Our feelings can’t always be ordered up on demand and don’t always coincide with the calendar.

Joseph Campbell says that, “Your sacred place is the place where you can find yourself again and again.” Where is that place for you? Perhaps with the all the changes that cancer has brought to your world, that place may have changed, or is no longer available or maybe it’s time to find a new one. While this is a sacred time of year in many faith traditions, most share a common theme of nurturing the spark of light in the darkness—holding the space for hopefulness.

What might it look like or mean to create our own uniquely personal sense of the sacred? How can we hold the space for that, a place to rekindle or nurture that spark, whether or not it conforms to cultural norms or our own personal traditions? Instead of a big family gathering, maybe I’d rather be alone and walk on the beach, or sit in the backyard and read a poem or listen to special music. Just maybe, I’ll spend the whole season angry and disappointed! That has to be OK too. What if that is even sacred in a way? Sometimes, paradoxically, we stand a better chance of accessing those special, restorative feelings we crave, when we first accept and honor the feelings we have right now as they are—we don’t need to defend or explain to anyone. Let’s hold space for the spark—for the possibility of light returning.


Please join our inter-faith Simms-Mann Chaplain, Michael Eselun for his monthly group, the Circle of Reflection.  It is an opportunity to explore in a safe, welcoming and non-judgmental space, the spiritual journey that cancer has carved out for us.  Each month we will reflect on a different theme.  Those with cancer and loved ones are welcome

 If you are interested in attending, please call the Center at 310.794.6644.

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