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As a cancer survivor in a pandemic, holidays are different this year | Patient Experience

As a cancer survivor in the middle of a pandemic, everything is different. That includes how we show our love for one another.

Denise Teter
Denise TeterRead moreCourtesy of Denise Teter

Three years ago, my medical team and I agreed that the only way I would ever recover my health was to give up eating in the conventional way. In went the catheter that would carry all my nutrition into my body; out went all food by mouth.

I have a genetic form of colon cancer that required removal of my entire colon, but that was the easy part. The complications that ensued from treatment left this Italian mom who loves nothing better than to put softball-sized meatballs in front of her family unable to eat normally.

So on Aug. 10, when the catheter came out and I was free to eat again, you might think I was pretty thrilled.

But this is 2020. Maybe next year the holidays will feel like they used to. For now, as a cancer survivor in the middle of a pandemic, everything is different.

That includes how we show our love for one another. Ours is a tight-knit family. But this year, my California and Florida daughters hesitate to come home for Christmas due to my health and my husband’s age. They know we are both vulnerable to the worst should we contract COVID-19. Airports seem like incubators for germs. As an eight-year FAP colorectal cancer survivor, I’m healthy and cancer-free but I’ve been on oral chemo for three years to treat aggressive desmoid tumors in my abdomen courtesy of FAP. This makes me a health risk, complete with low immunity.

I was recently at my local YMCA to play pickleball and ran in from the cold. Realizing I was standing too close to the young man ahead of me, I apologized for invading his six-foot space and noted that at least we both were properly masked.

His response stunned me. “I’m just wearing it so I can work out,” he said, adding that he thought they were pretty pointless otherwise.

I wanted to explain how very important masks are to people with compromised immune systems. How I get to exercise because everyone wears masks and sanitizes surfaces and equipment. I get to leave my house because of masks.

But I knew better; he is young and probably feels as invincible as I did at that age. With age — and hard experiences — comes the wisdom and confidence to realize that no one is invincible. We all need to take care of ourselves and each other.

But my wisdom doesn’t make this season easy. My heart desperately wants my daughters together for Christmas. I want to make softball-sized meatballs and manicotti complete with homemade crepes with my girls. I want to play Christmas carols and sing along, however off-key, while we make our favorite holiday cookies. I want to see my girls laughing. Teasing each other. Taking our dog for a walk and returning with rosy cheeks.

But then I think about how incredibly fortunate I am. True, I haven’t seen my girl who lives in Berkeley in a year. But my Florida girl came home in July to check in with the surgeon who removed her colon — yes, she inherited that FAP gene — in June of 2019. And she is healthy and strong and thriving. And my youngest daughter, who just graduated with a degree in early and exceptional education, lives at home. It is tough to be a teacher right now, and I’m thrilled we can help her out.

A neighborhood boy was collecting food the other day for our local food pantry, and I handed over a few bags of groceries, thinking that this year, this is the kind of food-as-love celebration I want to have.

No, I can’t have our “normal” Christmas. But I can do my part to help other families eat a meal together this holiday season. And maybe, for just a moment, our hearts will be full too.

Denise Teter lives in Kimberton, Chester County, with her family. She can be contacted at