Gillian Hailstones: Coping with cancer at Christmas

I have always loved Christmas, from putting the tree up, to eating sprouts, to crashing on the couch watching a movie.

Gillian didn't know how to tell her family she had been diagnosed with cancer 10 days before Christmas

It’s always been a real family occasion, a chance to spend time with the people who mean the most to me.

So last year when I was told I had breast cancer 10 days before Christmas one of my first thoughts was how do I tell my family?

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Could I really ruin everyone’s Christmas with my news?

Gillian Hailstones

Would it be better to wait until the holidays were over but then could I keep such a life-changing or, to be brutally honest, life-threatening secret?

On the other hand where among the conversations about Christmas cards, who was cooking which course for dinner, what dress would be worn to what Christmas do, whether it was okay to give my dad another bottle of gin for a present as this was not a lack of imagination but the start of a tradition….where amongst this did I drop in “Oh and did I tell you I have cancer…”

Hardest of all was the thought of my five-year-old son, busy writing his letter to Santa and wanting to go shopping for the right Christmas jumper to wear on dress-down day at school. How would I find the words to explain that mummy was sick and that our New Year’s resolutions would now be about getting through surgery and coping with chemo?

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Maggies in Lanarkshire

My saving grace and my lifeline was Maggie’s. I was working in the Glasgow Centre at the time and in fact was sitting in my favourite armchair at the back of the Centre looking out into the garden when I got the news of my diagnosis.

I had called the hospital for test results and knew straight away from the nurse’s voice that something was wrong. After coming off the phone I just sat staring out at the trees feeling numb but with a head bursting with questions all at the same time. The team were great.

They made me a cup of tea and discreetly placed the tissues in easy reach while I tried to think about what to do. They listened as I talked in the same jumbled-up way that my brain was working, and most importantly they gave me the space and the time to get myself together enough to drive home. They looked after and supported me in the same calm, comforting and professional way.

These conversations helped me feel less alone, cancer didn’t just happen to me and my family it happened to other people and other families up and down the country. They found a way through and so would we, we were not alone.

I made time to go for walks, to get some fresh air and exercise.

These plans helped me get through the weeks until my surgery in early January as well as making me feel like I was being proactive, getting my body ready for the onslaught of my treatment. I knew I couldn’t change what would happen to me but I could change how I responded to it and how much it impacted on me and my family.

After surgery there was chemo and all that it brought: wig choices, managing side effects and having to learn to slow down and not expect quite so much of myself.

Again Maggie’s was there for all this.

Despite knowing the theory from a professional point of view I still found it helpful to talk with the Centre staff, from the cancer support specialists letting me work my way through an unexpected treatment change to advice on my mad idea to run a 10K between chemos number four and five.

On days when the drive in was a bit much, I had a good excuse to get a lift from my family, and while I was in a class they could sit at the kitchen table and have a chance to talk about how hard it was for them watching what I was going through and trying to find a way to support me as best they could (yes, Dad, this is my wee confession that I had an ulterior motive to asking for a lift!).

Thankfully, this year my Christmas preparations are different and my family and I are looking forward to celebrating the end of my treatment and making plans for a New Year that doesn’t include cancer.

Within that though I do think of those people who find themselves where I was last year with a new diagnosis or those who have endured treatment but not had the same good outcome.

If this is you or someone you know, then please find time for a visit to one of the seven Maggie’s Centres across Scotland. The help and support my family and I got is freely available to all, there is no need for a referral and I can honestly say that a trip to Maggie’s will make a difference.

For more information, please visit: and find the online Centre at:

Gillian Hailstones is Maggie’s Head of Centre Operations Scotland.