Here's what one chronically ill woman wants you to know about the holidays.

It’s that time of year again.

There’s a lot I love about this season — the colorful light displays in my neighborhood; holiday music (well, most of it); and my own little traditions, like celebrating both Hanukkah and Christmas.

It’s also a hard time of year for me, and so I thought I’d write a holiday letter, but not the usual “here’s-what-I-did-this-year” kind. Instead, I’d like to share some of my thoughts about being chronically ill during the holidays.


This way, you’ll understand better what this season is like for me and, hopefully, all of us will have a better time.

I know this time of year is, at times, stressful for everyone.

Expectations can get out of hand, leading to disappointment, crankiness, and sometimes a bad case of the holiday blues. The odds are high that at some point, you’ll feel exhausted from having too much to do and too little time in which to do it.

I also know that some of you have memories that give rise to sadness during the holidays. I certainly do — memories that have nothing to do with the current state of my health.

This a mixed-bag time of year for many of us. I want you to know that I know I don’t have a monopoly on stress and frustration and sadness simply because I’m chronically ill. That said, I have some thoughts on my experience that I'd like to share.

1. I wish my health didn’t have to be an issue during the holidays.

It feels as if it should be a private matter, especially at a time of celebration. It can be uncomfortable — even embarrassing — to talk about my health.

Unfortunately, I don’t always have the luxury of staying silent. I have to share some of my needs and limitations with you or the holidays will be a disaster for me: I’ll burn out fast and not be able to keep company with anyone for the duration.

2. Although I’m doing my best to enjoy our time together, I may be in physical pain or feeling quite sick.

Such is the nature of invisible pain and illness: What you see does not necessarily reflect how I’m feeling. Please don’t misinterpret why I might not be as animated or active as my appearance would indicate I should be. It lifts my spirits to try to look nice, so I’ll be doing my best to dress in the spirit of the holidays.

And if I suddenly disappear for a while, I hope you’ll understand that it’s out of necessity, not choice. I’m just resting.

3. This is a particularly hard time of year for me because it brings into focus just how limited my life has become.

Every year, I have to accept anew my inability to travel or even attend holiday parties that are nearby.

I also can’t shop the way I’d like to. I used to love wandering through small, locally-owned shops, waiting for just the right treasure to catch my eye. Part of the fun was unexpectedly running into friends and acquaintances I hadn’t seen for a long time.

Now, all my shopping is done online. I know that lots of people shop online these days, but now, it's my only option.

4. Though I can't do everything you'll be doing, I don't want you to cancel plans just because I can't participate.

You'll be going to holiday parties, maybe out to dinner and a movie or driving around at night to see the holiday lights, and I'm glad! I want you to have a great time this holiday season. I'll feel much better about the effect this chronic illness has had on our relationship if you don’t cancel plans just because I can’t come along.

So, please, do things that are fun! If you go out to dinner, you can always bring me take-out.

5. It feels incredibly good when you acknowledge that it's hard for me to be chronically ill.

I don’t need much of an acknowledgement of how difficult the holiday season can be for me — just a pat on the shoulder or a short comment, such as “I’m sorry; I know this must be tough for you.” It makes me feel understood, which is something everyone wants in life.

If I’m aware of some difficulties you’re facing — health or otherwise — I promise I’ll try to remember to reach out to you in the same way.

I love all of you and hope your holidays are fun and filled with joy!

This story originally appeared in Psychology Today and has been reprinted here with permission.

via Lever Du Ciné / YouTube and Josiah Robles / Twitter

One of the most touching moments in Disney's "Toy Story" series is in the third film when 17-year-old Andy goes off to college, leaving his beloved toys behind to a young girl named Bonnie. It's the moment when he's forced to put the things of childhood behind and make his way in the world as an adult.

Before driving off in his car, he gives Bonnie his favorite toy, Woody, and the two play together with his toys for one last time. While he's excited to move on to go to school, his heart is clearly heavy with the knowledge of everything he's leaving behind.

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via Lever Du Ciné / YouTube and Josiah Robles / Twitter

One of the most touching moments in Disney's "Toy Story" series is in the third film when 17-year-old Andy goes off to college, leaving his beloved toys behind to a young girl named Bonnie. It's the moment when he's forced to put the things of childhood behind and make his way in the world as an adult.

Before driving off in his car, he gives Bonnie his favorite toy, Woody, and the two play together with his toys for one last time. While he's excited to move on to go to school, his heart is clearly heavy with the knowledge of everything he's leaving behind.

Keep Reading Show less
True

Each year, an estimated 1.8 million people in the United States are affected by cancer — most commonly cancers of the breast, lung, prostate, and blood cancers such as leukemia. While not everyone overcomes the disease, thanks to science, more people are surviving — and for longer — than ever before in history.

We asked three people whose lives have been impacted by cancer to share their stories – how their lives were changed by the disease, and how they're using that experience to change the future of cancer treatments with the hope that ultimately, in the fight against cancer, science will win. Here's what they had to say.

Celine Ryan, 55, engineer database programmer and mother of five from Detroit, MI

Photo courtesy of Celine Ryan

In September 2013, Celine Ryan woke up from a colonoscopy to some traumatic news. Her gastroenterologist showed her a picture of the cancerous mass they found during the procedure.

Ryan and her husband, Patrick, had scheduled a colonoscopy after discovering some unusual bleeding, so the suspicion she could have cancer was already there. Neither of them, however, were quite prepared for the results to be positive -- or for the treatment to begin so soon. Just two days after learning the news, Ryan had surgery to remove the tumor, part of her bladder, and 17 cancerous lymph nodes. Chemotherapy and radiation soon followed.

Ryan's treatment was rigorous – but in December 2014, she got the devastating news that the cancer, once confined to her colon, had spread to her lungs. Her prognosis, they said, was likely terminal.

But rather than give up hope, Ryan sought support from online research, fellow cancer patients and survivors, and her medical team. When she brought up immunotherapy to her oncologist, he quickly agreed it was the best course of action. Ryan's cancer, like a majority of colon and pancreatic cancers, had been caused by a defect on the gene KRAS, which can result in a very aggressive cancer that is virtually "undruggable." According to the medical literature, the relatively smooth protein structure of the KRAS gene meant that designing inhibitors to bind to surface grooves and treat the cancer has been historically difficult. Through her support systems, Ryan discovered an experimental immunotherapy trial at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, MD., and called them immediately to see if she was eligible. After months of trying to determine whether she was a suitable candidate for the experimental treatment, Ryan was finally accepted.

The treatment, known as tumor-infiltrating lymphocyte therapy, or TIL, is a testament to how far modern science has evolved. With this therapy, doctors remove a tumor and harvest special immune cells that are found naturally in the tumor. Doctors then grow the cells in a lab over the next several weeks with a protein that promotes rapid TIL growth – and once the cells number into the billions, they are infused back into the patient's body to fight the cancer. On April 1, 2015, Ryan had her tumor removed at the NIH. Two months later, she went inpatient for four weeks to have the team "wash out" her immune system with chemotherapy and infuse the cells – all 148 billion of them – back into her body.

Six weeks after the infusion, Ryan and Patrick went back for a follow-up appointment – and the news they got was stunning: Not only had no new tumors developed, but the six existing tumors in her lungs had shrunk significantly. Less than a year after her cell infusion, in April 2016, the doctors told Ryan news that would have been impossible just a decade earlier: Thanks to the cell infusion, Ryan was now considered NED – no evaluable disease. Her body was cancer-free.

Ryan is still NED today and continuing annual follow-up appointments at the NIH, experiencing things she never dreamed she'd be able to live to see, such as her children's high school and college graduations. She's also donating her blood and cells to the NIH to help them research other potential cancer treatments. "It was an honor to do so," Ryan said of her experience. "I'm just thrilled, and I hope my experience can help a lot more people."

Patrice Lee, PhD, VP of Pharmacology, Toxicology and Exploratory Development at Pfizer

Photo courtesy of Patrice Lee

Patrice Lee got into scientific research in an unconventional way – through the late ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau.

Lee never met Cousteau but her dreams of working with him one day led her to pursue a career in science. Initially, Lee completed an undergraduate degree in marine biology; eventually, her interests changed and she decided to get a dual doctoral degree in physiology and toxicology at Duke University. She now works at Pfizer's R&D site in Boulder, CO (formerly Array BioPharma), leading a group of scientists who determine the safety and efficacy of new oncology drugs.

"Scientists focused on drug discovery and development in the pharmaceutical industry are deeply committed to inventing new therapies to meet unmet needs," Lee says, describing her field of work. "We're driven to achieve new medicines and vaccines as quickly as possible without sacrificing safety."

Among the drugs Lee has helped develop during her career, including cancer therapies, she says around a dozen are currently in development, while nine have received FDA approval — an incredible accomplishment as many scientists spend their careers without seeing their drug make it to market. Lee's team is particularly interested in therapies for brain metastases — something that Lee says is a largely unmet need in cancer research, and something her team is working on from a variety of angles. "Now that we've had rapid success with mRNA vaccine technology, we hope to explore what the future holds when applying this technology to cancers," Lee says.

But while evaluating potential cancer therapies is a professional passion of Lee's, it's also a mission that's deeply personal. "I'm also a breast cancer survivor," she says. "So I've been on the other side of things and have participated in a clinical trial."

However, seeing how melanoma therapies that she helped develop have affected other real-life cancer patients, she says, has been a highlight of her career. "We had one therapy that was approved for patients with BRAF-mutant metastatic melanoma," Lee recalls. "Our team in Boulder was graced by a visit from a patient that had benefited from these drugs that we developed. It was a very special moment for the entire team."

None of these therapies would be available, Lee says without rigorous science behind it: "Facts come from good science. Facts will drive the development of new drugs, and that's what will help patients."

Chiuying "Cynthia" Kuk (they/them) MS, 34, third-year medical student at Michigan State University College of Human Medicine

Photo courtesy of Cynthia Kuk

Cynthia Kuk was just 10 years old when they had a conversation that would change their life forever.

"My mother, who worked as a translator for the government at the time, had been diagnosed with breast cancer, and after her chemotherapy treatments she would get really sick," Kuk, who uses they/them pronouns, recalls. "When I asked my dad why mom was puking so much, he said it was because of the medicine she was taking that would help her get better."

Kuk's response was immediate: "That's so stupid! Why would a medicine make you feel worse instead of better? When I'm older, I want to create medicine that won't make people sick like that."

Nine years later, Kuk traveled from their native Hong Kong to the United States to do exactly that. Kuk enrolled in a small, liberal arts college for their Bachelor's degree, and then four years later started a PhD program in cancer research. Although Kuk's mother was in remission from her cancer at the time, Kuk's goal was the same as it had been as a 10-year-old watching her suffer through chemotherapy: to design a better cancer treatment, and change the landscape of cancer research forever.

Since then, Kuk's mission has changed slightly.

"My mom's cancer relapsed in 2008, and she ended up passing away about five years after that," Kuk says. "After my mom died, I started having this sense of urgency. Cancer research is such that you work for twenty years, and at the end of it you might have a fancy medication that could help people, but I wanted to help people now." With their mother still at the forefront of their mind, Kuk decided to quit their PhD program and enter medical school.

Now, Kuk plans to pursue a career in emergency medicine – not only because they are drawn to the excitement of the emergency room, but because the ER is a place where the most marginalized people tend to seek care.

"I have a special interest in the LGBTQ+ population, as I identify as queer and nonbinary," says Kuk. "A lot of people in this community and other marginalized communities access care through the ER and also tend to avoid medical care since there is a history of mistreatment and judgement from healthcare workers. How you carry yourself as a doctor, your compassion, that can make a huge difference in someone's care."

In addition to making a difference in the lives of LGBTQ+ patients, Kuk wants to make a difference in the lives of patients with cancer as well, like their mother had.

"We've diagnosed patients in the Emergency Department with cancer before," Kuk says. "I can't make cancer good news but how you deliver bad news and the compassion you show could make a world of difference to that patient and their family."

During their training, Kuk advocates for patients by delivering compassionate and inclusive care, whether they happen to have cancer or not. In addition to emphasizing their patient's pronouns and chosen names, they ask for inclusive social and sexual histories as well as using gender neutral language. In doing this, they hope to make medicine as a whole more accessible for people who have been historically pushed aside.

"I'm just one person, and I can't force everyone to respect you, if you're marginalized," Kuk says. "But I do want to push for a culture where people appreciate others who are different from them."