The only thing on my wish list this year? More Christmases! After a year of gruelling cancer treatment, SARAH STANDING offers a poignant reminder of the power of friends and family over expensive presents

  • UK actress Sarah Standing reflects on battle with non-Hodgkins lymphoma
  • She was diagnosed two days before the national lockdown in October 2020
  • Sarah said: ‘This year, I feel so swamped with gratitude just to be here’

Last year, the Grinch really did steal Christmas, forcibly parting so many of us from our families. But the legacy of lockdown and the devastation of Covid has perhaps inadvertently provided us all with a much-needed reset button.

Who cared about extravagant presents under the tree, or the perfect feast, when all any of us really yearned for in 2020 was the physical presence of those we loved and were separated from?

Christmas last year was not about big gestures but small kindnesses. Covid bought us all back to basics: health truly is wealth.

Yet ironically, it took a global pandemic and unimaginable heartbreak for us to realise that, and to break the cycle of excessive consumerism. To recognise that staying alive, protecting those we love and for life to get back to some semblance of normality was all any of us really wanted or needed. Nothing more.

It seemed so futile to focus on worrying what to buy when all that mattered was rolling out a vaccine as fast as possible. Protection has no price, yet it was the only gift we all craved.

UK actress Sarah Standing reflects on battle with non-Hodgkins lymphoma as Christmastime approaches, appreciating being around family rather than expensive gifts 

Before the pandemic, I was known as the Queen of Christmas. For weeks beforehand, I was planning and trying to be uber-organised so the day itself wasn’t spent with me fat-splattered and furiously basting a bird in the oven.

I loved the preparation. All of it. From filling huge glass bowls with Quality Streets to festooning my youngest grandson’s highchair with fairy lights, not to mention seeking out the most desirable gifts for all the family.

I never regarded any of it as a chore. Last year, all that changed. Christmas was the pits.

I had been diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma two days before the second national lockdown in October 2020 and I was withering from chemo.

But more than that, I was heartbroken not to be able to spend the day with my loved ones.

I missed my sister, Emma, who I hadn’t seen for more than a year as she lives in the U.S. I had empty Christmas stockings hanging on my mantelpiece and a fractured heart.

I had very little strength or inclination to do any retail therapy. All I wanted for Christmas was to see my 87-year-old mother [actress Nanette Newman], who lives alone over an hour away, my three children and my two young grandchildren. I’m fortunate in that my children, who are 36, 35 and 32, live close by in London, but the vaccine rollout was only just beginning and they were all unvaccinated. A threat.

But I did see them. In little batches. On my doorstep. At a distance. With masks on. They were fleeting moments of untouchable happiness, but ones I treasured far more than any expensive trinkets. My eldest daughter, India, did Christmas at her house for her siblings.

The baton was handed on — and I pretended not to mind about any of it. It was pared down, in a strict social bubble, and without their grandmother or parents present.

I’m sure India did it brilliantly, but as I love Christmas more than any other festive occasion, I can’t pretend it didn’t hurt.

I am determined that this year will be different.

Sarah Standing enjoying a Christmas past with husband Johnnie as Santa. Sarah said she is still undergoing treatment for the next 18 months but it is ‘nowhere near as savage as chemo’

Everyone (bar the grandchildren) is double-jabbed and boostered, and I’ve stopped withering and have been given (if not quite a clean bill of health) the promise of a future. I’m still having treatment for the next 18 months, but it’s nowhere near as savage as chemo. It’s some sort of marvellous thing that kills off rogue cancer cells — I choose not to ask questions and just trust the doctors.

Basically, it’s a belt-and-braces job every two months which enables me to rejoin the land of the living.

Despite the fact I have been double-vaxxed and boostered, patients with any form of blood cancer are ultra-vulnerable.

Medical data has recently revealed that being vaccinated while undergoing chemo doesn’t really count, so I am currently trying to have more vaccinations to supplement them. Personally, I have taken a slightly controversial view of the fact that tests showed I have zero antibodies, which doctors say is due to the fact that people with blood cancers haven’t responded to vaccinations as originally imagined. Because I am alive. I am alive!

For eight months after being diagnosed, I was a hermit, seeing no one and feeling miserable. Then, once I had been vaccinated, I thought I was relatively safe so stepped out into society again.

And then I found out I wasn’t safe. I was a ticking time bomb — and, in many ways, remain so.

However, I have come to the conclusion that I’m not prepared just to be alive and not to live. I’ve always been a bit of a risk-taker, so I lateral flow test anyone who comes into my house, keep windows open no matter how cold, and wear a mask everywhere. Life is short and life is wonderful, and I never want mine to end. But I want to enjoy it and live it seeing the people I love.

So, despite the scary headlines, I can’t wait for a big family Christmas. My eldest daughter is taking care of the festivities at her house again.

It’s bigger, has a garden and, truth be told, I’m not quite strong or energetic enough.

My mind is willing but my flesh is still a bit weak.

I love my daughter for taking control without making me feel redundant. I’m still cooking the turkey and gravy, and ferrying them over to her house wrapped in tinfoil. I’m providing crackers and I’ve decorated my house within an inch of its life.

I am more excited about the day than I’ve ever been. I’ve always regarded Christmas as a benchmark; one that provides a template for my family’s history. ‘That was the first Christmas after Daddy died.’ Or ‘That was the Christmas we found out we were going to be grandparents.’ It marks the passage of time.

Since her diagnosis of non-Hodgkins lymphoma in October 2020, Sarah Standing has been undergoing chemotherapy treatment and kept track of her hair loss

Pre-coronavirus, I’d got hosting Christmas down to a fine art. I’d order a Kelly Bronze organic turkey to be delivered on December 23, make rich gravy from chicken stock and freeze it ahead of time, chop red cabbage and marinate it with apples, brown sugar and vinegar and have it ready to be reheated on Christmas Day. The table would be set well in advance, each year with a slightly different theme.

Two years ago, before the pandemic, I laid fake snow down the centre of the table, hiding strings of battery-operated fairy lights in between. I placed my collection of shiny-red mushroom ornaments here and there, along with mini Christmas trees in order to create a magical landscape.

Last year was so very different. My husband, Johnnie, gallantly tried to make Christmas a good one, but it was virtually impossible. I felt like I was treading through treacle — bald, constantly freezing cold, uncertain and insecure.

Being diagnosed with cancer makes one appreciate everything but doubt life. It’s an odd conundrum. You want to gather everyone close to your heart, but you also want to shield them from your reality.

I hated impinging on my children’s happiness. I wanted then to enjoy the 60 years I’d spent on this Earth devoid of fear. I hated the fact that I’d given them the fear for Christmas.

I now truly know the real meaning of Christmas.

Because the one thing having a brush with death does is to concentrate the mind.

All the old adages one has swept aside and ignored come into sharp focus. You know what really matters. Your family and friends don’t actually want extravagant gifts to reaffirm what you feel towards them: they just want that friendship and love to continue.

And that is all I want, too.

More Christmases.

Yet I feel so swamped with gratitude still to be here, I can’t allow this opportunity to show how much their support has meant go unobserved.

I will not be rushing out (because I physically shouldn’t, and can’t) to spend, spend, spend on things that don’t really matter in the way I recklessly did before I got ill. Instead, I have a deep urge to give meaningful presents. When I was first diagnosed with cancer, I was overwhelmed by the tsunami of kindness that enveloped me.

Sarah with her actress mother, Nanette Newman, at The Ivy in London in October 2013. She said: ‘I had very little strength or inclination to do any retail therapy. All I wanted for Christmas was to see my 87-year-old mother, who lives alone over an hour away, my three children and my two young grandchildren’

It was extraordinary and touching beyond belief; a wake-up call that made me revaluate my entire life. One of life’s great lessons. It is people and not monetary things that make up the patchwork quilt of memories.

So rather than splashing the cash, I have repurposed decorations that I bought to festoon our house for my daughter’s wedding party a decade ago.

Huge pink and red tissue globes now adorn our mantelpiece, interspersed with fairy lights and sprigs of pine. No new decorations: just old ones that bring back happy memories.

I’ve made and lovingly decorated brandy-infused Christmas cakes for all the nurses and doctors who have taken such care of me, and for dear friends I’ve filled glass jars with homemade, killer-calorific Rocky Road dusted with sparkling edible glitter.

I’ve needlepointed a couple of cushions (it’s amazing how much one can achieve when socialising and going out is restricted), and I have tried to curtail the click-and-buy culture of shopping on Amazon and consciously tried to support small shops.

I have not just wantonly bought ‘stuff’ for the sake of it; rather, I’ve scoured eBay and have found fabulous pre-loved, wooden Fisher-Price toys for my youngest grandson and an item of vintage clothing for my youngest daughter that I hope she will covet.

I’ve tried to be mindful as opposed to mindless; aware that the severity of climate change is real and immediate.

When something is thrown away, there is no ‘away’. It remains. So why just add to landfill when, with a little thought, it is possible to repurpose and rethink gifting?

My entire family are making big sacrifices for us to have Christmas hunkered down together. They are spending a small fortune PCR-testing and are forgoing Christmas gatherings and parties in order that I can join them.

I am so grateful to them all, and aware of what a sacrifice that is.

Last year made me recognise Christmas is not about spending money and becoming obsessed with wrapping the latest must-have items or buying expensive gifts for one’s nearest and dearest.

Christmas shouldn’t be a frenzy of shopping, ticking off a list of presents that need to be produced, somehow thinking they are an expression of love.

They aren’t.

Love doesn’t come in a box with a bow on top. Love is love. It’s priceless and cannot be bought.

The thought of it being taken away, or of it being finite, makes any present pale into insignificance. It’s people who are the real prize. And they are the ones that keep on giving.

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