12/10/2013 08:15 am ET Updated Feb 09, 2014

8 Things Cancer Taught Me About Christmas

Eight years ago, just before Christmas, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I remember that Christmas more clearly than any other, perhaps because I had no idea if it would be my last. It was, admittedly, also memorable because I was filled with fear and worry. But I learned some important things that holiday season that I've carried with me ever since:

1) Be in the now. Yes, of course, we've heard this a million times. But do we really do it? I remember making the cranberry sauce that year, and feeling totally mesmerized by the cranberries -- by their sharp red color, by the sound of the berries popping in the piping hot water, by their texture and taste. Other years, making cranberry sauce or anything else was by rote, but this particular year I reveled in every step of putting the holiday meal together for my family. I've read or heard (somewhere) that food made with love tastes better. I tried and try still to put love into the food I prepare.

2) Make time for yourself. That year, I took a lot of time for self-care. I practiced what I preach and took care of myself, making time for a walk every day, for yoga, and for meditation and visualization (I had a wonderful healing valley in my mind where I sat, surrounded by white flowers to spur my white blood cells on). But you don't need to have a cancer diagnosis to take care of yourself--as one yoga teacher I know recently advised, build your day around your spiritual practice, don't try to fit it into the other stuff. When you make your quiet time your top priority everything else will fall into place. But when we run around shopping, cleaning, car-pooling, working, and doing whatever we do, it's easy to lose sight of our own wellbeing.

3) Pay attention to your breath. I discovered, during the months of anxiety, waiting, treatment and recovery, that my breath was a crucial guidepost to my emotions. Miraculously, I could calm myself down with long, slow, deep breathing. When the breath slows and the parasympathetic nervous system clicks in everything tones down a notch. It's hard to be angry, irritated, anxious or stressed when you tap into your breath and pay attention.

4) Light candles, play the piano, dance, read Jane Austen, wear your most expensive earrings and shoes, buy fresh flowers. What is the point of waiting? "When do you think I should stop working at this job and start one I really might love?" a friend asked me the other day. When? Now, of course. "Don't wait for life to happen," a yogini friend warned when I told her I was waiting for the results of a test during my treatments, "life is happening now." Do...not...wait. Holidays are a great time to take a step back and revisit and reassess the pastimes that we feel passionate about and make an action plan to pursue them in the new year.

5) Downsize your shopping and focus more on experiences. Most people won't remember what you gave them for Christmas a year from now. They'll remember the dinner you made, the hug you gave them, the fact that you called or emailed. Frankly, I've entirely forgotten what my best friend from childhood gave me for Christmas that year, but I do remember her coming over to my house and praying for me. I don't remember if my yoga teacher gave me a "present." But I do remember that her classes "Om'd" for me during my surgery and that the owner of the yoga center appeared on my doorstep and led me through a healing meditation practice in my living room.

6) Replace holiday hysteria with holiday serenity and gratitude. I remember looking around our holiday table that year. I wasn't thinking about how my dinner turned out, or whether my pie crusts were perfectly formed. I was thinking about the love I felt for my husband and kids, for my brother, my nephew, and the other family and friends who were gathered. All the petty jumble of worry about presents, the tree, and food preparation were replaced by gratitude for what I had, and by the fervent, profound wish and prayer that this could go on and on for years to come. My Christmas cards didn't go out that year until January. My presents were in gift bags, not wrapped. But in my heart, my ducks were in a row, and I knew what mattered.

7) Laugh a lot. My niece and her bf, who live in North Carolina, visited that year, and the few days I spent with them made a huge difference. My niece's fiancé is one of the funniest guys I know. Even on the day of my cancer diagnosis he had me in stitches laughing. Surround yourself with funny people who make you laugh. Don't get me wrong, I adore my negative-downer friends, but if you want to be happy for the rest of your life find yourself some friends or family who will make you laugh. I learned that year that I can choose to surround myself with fun, funny people. I can choose happiness and so can you. I'm not suggesting that you discard your negative-thinking friends and family members. But pay attention to how much time you spend with them and make sure that they don't drag you down during the holidays, or any other time.

8) Number 8, my favorite, is..."So what?" Another yoga teacher (they seem to have such wisdom!) loves to say this. I'm not talking about heart surgery here. But what I am talking about is just say you piss off your sister-in-law because you don't send an engraved invitation to your eggnog soiree...or just say you can't get your daughter the designer pocketbook she wanted and she has to settle for a knockoff...or say you got your bangs cut too short the day before the office party and you look like a complete idiot. So what? Really, the only drama I want to know about during the holidays is the story of the birth in the manger. If someone's nose is bent out of shape because I forgot to send a card, then so what? If someone is unhappy because I didn't purchase the $300 phone they wanted then so what? If someone is annoyed because they didn't get to have sex on Xmas Eve (er...well, I guess that would be my husband!) what? There are other eves.

Happy holidays to all!

Earlier on Huff/Post50:

Advice To My Younger Self: Work Life Balance