Find Comfort and Joy This Season: Tips from a 20-year cancer patient on keeping the holiday spirit when the going is rough
How do you hold on to the Christmas spirit and goodwill to all when you’re dealing with health issues during the holidays? In her 20 years as a cancer patient, Katherine Russell Rich has come to understand that holidays are tough on everyone —patients and hospital personnel and that compassion extended is compassion received.
“It must be very hard around here during the holidays,” Kathy Rich observed aloud while talking with Dr. George Raptis, her oncologist of many years. Dr. Raptis agreed, “Doctors are upset for the same reason that their patients are upset, because it’s an emotional time.”
Kathy Rich was 32 in 1989 when she was first diagnosed with breast cancer. The cancer returned in 1993 and thereafter refused to leave. She had chemo, lost her hair, spent one Christmas in a New York hospital “drowning in pain. The cancer had devoured two vertebrae. A third collapsed when an orderly bringing me back from a scan fumbled and dropped me onto the mattress,” she wrote in her wise and witty book, “The Red Devil: To Hell With Cancer and Back.”
Kathy Rich has Stage IV cancer. She’s had it for 15 years.
Initially, her sometimes harrowing hospital experiences turned her into a “consumer -fighter with my doctors,” she says, “I would watch them like a hawk.” Little by little, over years and years, she refocused her angle of vision. “I saw that for doctors the practice of medicine had gotten crazier and more difficult,” she says. “I think we know this intellectually but if you’re not in the belly of the beast one doesn’t have any idea what doctors have to put up with.” Over time, she concluded that, “an adversarial relationship, helped no one.” Compassion, she says, “just gets you so much further. You and the medical team are there for your well being.”
Dr. Raptis didn’t balk when, in 2001, Kathy told him she wanted to go to India to live, to learn Hindi and write a book about her experience. “He and I had fought for my life for a long time and because of that long relationship, I think he understood that the [fight] didn’t make sense if I didn’t live my life.”
In India, her life was nearly cut short by an encounter with a sacred cow but that’s a story you can read in the spring of 2008 when her book, Unspeakable: My Life in Other Words is published.
Dr. Raptis often brings med students to meet his adventurous patient. “He has me talk to them about going to India, about living my life,” says Kathy. “I was really grateful to him and to anyone who didn’t talk to me as if I was only a cancer patient,” she says, “because all cancer patients are other things too. They are full human beings.”
And so are the doctors, nurses, and technicians who spend their holidays in the hospital.