Cancer survivor, spiritual experts, share secrets for finding joy during the holidays and life

Back in 2015, Janice Welch was 24, newly married and living a whirlwind life wrapped around work, studying school administration and grabbing fast food when she had time. The holidays were a big deal. She and her husband would drive 15 hours from their home in Florida to visit family in Kentucky and Indiana.

Then, out of nowhere, severe chest pain, headaches, weight loss and night sweats knocked Welch off her axis. She fought to keep up with her graduate studies at the University of West Florida while doctors blamed stress. It was doctor No. 6 who gave her the answer that floored her.

Welch had cancer. 

The young woman would spend the next few years in and out of The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston – the highest-ranked cancer treatment center in the country – battling refractory Hodgkin lymphoma, a disease of the lymphatic system. She would survive. Her marriage and her old life would not.

Fast forward to now. After a divorce, a career pivot and the most brutal part of her health battle, Welch, 31, of Santa Rosa Beach, Fla., is in a good place. She is grateful for every breath, has learned to ask for help and spends major holidays with immediate family, friends or even alone – but always peaceful and happy. She teaches yoga. She accepts. Her Christmas gift list is dominated by the household pets of the people she knows. She shares life tips on her Instagram account: @Janicelynnfit.

“My life is completely different,” said Welch, who is boosted mentally by regular Zoom meetings with fellow cancer survivors tied to MD Anderson’s Adolescent and Young Adult Program (AYA). 

“I used to think everything was about work; that had to be done first,” she said. “I didn’t make it a priority to go to the gym. I ate when I could. Now, my whole life is centered around wellness. I know what it’s like to be sick, and I don’t want that.”

Going through cancer and the added stress of the pandemic was hard but made her better, Welch said.

“I wake up grateful every single day,” she said. “I don’t take one breath for granted. I always find joy. Going through cancer really taught me how to count the small joys. The small joys are the big ones.”

Welch embodies what spiritual leaders say people should follow during this time of year that is problematic for many, despite the happy-go-lucky messages offered up on network television and social media.

According to a study by the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 63% of Americans report feeling too much pressure during the holidays; 57% feel the holidays present unrealistic expectations and 66% feel lonely. Some, like Welch, have had their lives upended by illness. These figures are compounded by the fact that multiple studies have shown higher mortality rates during the holidays, particularly Christmas, which means more people are dealing with grief. The pandemic has added to these stresses.

This means that while well-meaning morning news hosts are sharing images of the Christmas trees in their well-appointed homes, or interviewing celebrity cooks about intricate holiday recipes, many Americans are feeling a disconnect from what the world presents as normal for this time of year.

Experts focused on spirituality say this is the time to search inward, to meditate on the real meaning of the holidays and practice more giving than receiving.

“Never take life for granted,” Sylvester McNutt III, a Phoenix-based inspirational author, advises his social media followers. “Be grateful and appreciative every single time you make it home. Find time each day to bring genuine gratitude to your day,” he says.

Use dance, exercise and movement to boost your mood, and get started now working on what you’ve been promising to do in the new year, recommends Nashville-based transformational expert Koya Webb.

“The world needs you to rest, recover and shine, even in the dark times,” she says. “You can be the light.”

McLean Hospital in Massachusetts has created a web page devoted to advice for those committed to finding joy during the holidays. Among the recommendations: Give your time and energy instead of things, schedule time for self-care, and forgive yourself if you don’t want to socialize. 

Welch’s advice is similar to what spiritual experts share, except hers is from lived experience: Spend time with people who make you feel good, shore up your boundaries and even make new holiday traditions.

Welch underwent chemotherapy and radiation following her diagnosis in August 2015. But after a subsequent pet scan revealed cancer activity in her lymph nodes, the decision was made for her to undergo high doses of chemotherapy and then a stem cell transplant, or replacement of the body’s blood-forming cells, which are often destroyed by high doses of chemo.

After her cancer diagnosis, Welch and her husband moved to Houston to be near MD Anderson. They spent Thanksgiving with some kind strangers they’d met at the hospital. Welch was hospitalized from Christmas Eve to around Valentine’s Day, spending holidays relegated to her room – as were other stem cell patients – but enjoying treats that MD Anderson allowed visitors and caregivers to take back to patients’ rooms. She ordered handmade tree ornaments from Etsy, the site featuring handicrafts for sale. When she was physically able, the nurses and staff at MD Anderson helped her walk the floor or get outside.

“Cancer in general taught me that you have to kind of take life as it comes,” Welch said.

Those who have never experienced cancer might not be familiar with the huge financial and emotional toll that it leaves, Welch said. After her stem cell transplant, she had to receive her childhood vaccinations all over again. Chemotherapy pushed her into premature menopause.

“Once I started getting well, I decided I wasn’t going to stress myself with the holidays and travel,” Welch said. “When you go through any sort of traumatic event, you are sort of forced to reground.”

And reground is what Welch did. While her marriage did not survive, she decided that her divorce was a perfect turning point to switch careers and lifestyles too. She discovered yoga, found it was healing mentally and physically, and now teaches it. She gets “nine plus” hours of sleep each night. She drinks water. She counts her blessings.

This has been and will be a good holiday season for her. She spent time in October with her mother and Thanksgiving with a friend’s family at a house on the beach. She’ll spend Christmas on Miami Beach with friends – her first real vacation in a while.

Welch recommends that people “really identify what it is that is most important to you, how you want to feel on the holidays and stay around the people who give you the most energy … the people that kind of fill your cup.”

From top: Janice Welch, 31, of  Santa Rosa Beach, Fla., says she has done a complete pivot on life after a four-year battle with cancer. Today, she practices extreme wellness, takes part in virtual support groups organized by The University of Texas MD Cancer Center Adolescent and Young Adult Program, doesn’t stress about holidays and gives thanks for every breath. Photo: Janice Welch

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