There's More to Life Than Cancer

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I grew up in Baton Rouge, La., where the holidays for our family included my dad, a fanatic LSU fan, counting down to the announcement of the college bowl game schedule. It also meant my birthday, days off from school, nightly work on the live nativity scene at church, two-a-day choir practices and sitting around the kitchen table making homemade Christmas cards.

How important are family holiday traditions? They help define beliefs and customs, and more importantly, determine the extent of the family unit. For kids age 1 to 92, traditions provide a sense of belonging and being loved. Ernest Burgess, a sociologist at the University of Chicago, studied how traditions provide families a heritage of attitudes, sentiments and ideals that he has termed "family culture."  

I remember when my mother was diagnosed with cancer and the whole family was celebrating Christmas in Pennsylvania. We all flew home early and my dad flew back after the holidays and drove the car home alone. But my mother never let her 15-year cancer journey become her or the family's whole life. I can hear her saying, "There is more to my life than my cancer."

Since being diagnosed with prostate cancer three years ago, I wake up with her passion for life and the realization that I can make the choice each day to have more than cancer in my life. The holiday season has been a great time for me to engage in those activities that reinforce the family culture. They give me so much love and strength to live each day with more than just cancer.

What holiday traditions are important for you and your connection to love and life? I'm writing this in Burlington, Vt., where we're spending a pre-Christmas vacation with a good friend and his family. Today we drove out to a tree farm and let Sophie the golden lab loose and all the kids from age 7 to 80 run around to pick out the Christmas tree. We drove home singing carols and spent the last few hours decorating the tree. Tonight we are having a dinner party with a group of good friends and will no doubt share memories of past holidays, laugh a lot, and go to sleep tonight with smiles a mile wide and deep.

If you're like our empty nest family, our holidays usually are built around trips where the kids rule and the spirit of the holidays aren't just present, but LOUD. There have been Thanksgivings and Christmases when we stayed in Houston and worked as volunteers helping to feed the hungry, wrap and hand out presents to the needy, or sing carols at senior living centers. Maybe it's a holiday cruise or travel to Mexico. Several Christmases ago, we spent a wonderful two weeks in Hawaii.

My hope is that while you've been reading about some of my holiday traditions and experiences, you've started a mental list of holiday activities that are important to you. Remember that holiday traditions can help you strengthen your connections to family culture, love and life. May your holiday season be full of the traditions that remind you there is more to life than cancer.


Dear Bill,

YOur message warmed my heart. I will cherish these moments and go for the gusto in each day!

Wonderful essay Billy. I'm proud to be your long time friend.

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