Creating Meaningful Family Moments while Facing a Cancer Diagnosis

Recently, we have been in a unique position of working alongside several families with young children. Some of these families are facing a serious and potentially life-threatening cancer diagnosis. Therein, there may be an acute sense of urgency to make and save memories with the family they love.

There are various methods of archiving special memories, but in the vein of the rigors of raising a family and facing cancer treatments, just the thought of preserving memories can feel exhaustive and overwhelming. With the incredible modalities available to record memories, if energy is at its ebb (which it usually is when treatment is at bay) we find that the easiest way to create memories may be by engaging the full range of your family’s senses.

What a fascinating gift we have been given – by utilizing our senses, we spark memories! Every time we taste, smell, touch, see, or hear we link to a memory. And, of the five senses, our sense of smell is most related to our long-term and emotional memory. When we combine more than one sense for every experience, we are multiplying the memory of it. Think of the array of senses presented with attending a baseball game – the sound of a bat hitting a ball, the taste and scent of hot dogs, roasted peanuts, popcorn, the vision and sound of the cheering crowds, and the timeless melody “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.”

The more senses we can connect to memories – the better opportunity there is to recall the memory. So, if we want to help embed a memory with another memory, we can purposefully add more senses to the memories we are trying to create.  Research shows that when we have an emotional attachment to memories, we remember them longer. Think about the emotional connection we feel with spending quality time with our family at the ballgame, and other family vacations and gatherings.

I am a firm believer that living with a serious illness presents an urgency for making and saving memories. But, by mere membership of life on this planet, we are all presented with the certainty of living with uncertainty, which warrants the opportunity of making and saving memories for those we love.

As the wise physician, mother, and long-term cancer survivor, Wendy Harpham writes:  “Despite the uncertainty (we face with cancer) we have to decide on the optimum balance of work and play and learn to laugh and love the face of a fragile future.” So, when we think of how we will be remembered – consider that creating memories can be nearly effortless when we keep the senses in mind. Without much energy we can create a lifetime of sense memories for our family, children, and grandchildren.

Here are some suggestions for incorporating the senses into memory-making:

  • Develop and strengthen family rituals. Having family rituals reinforces family ties and gives children a sense of personal and group identity. Rituals such as holidays, birthdays, and family reunions also connect children to other generations.
  • Develop and reinforce family traditions – family routines that help the household run smoothly, family popcorn & movie night, family book club, board or card game night, or a version of “Taco Tuesdays.”
  • Most of our strongest memories are those that were made outside. Spend regular outdoor play time together – snowshoeing, skiing, biking, hiking, fishing, camping, boating, swimming, sledding, nature walks and picnics.
  • Insist on making meal-times special. Psychological research shows that the strongest family memories are focused on family meals (as well as vacations and time spent outdoors). Family meals can be a powerful memory-making ritual. It’s a time when the entire family can meet, share stories, exchange ideas, solve problems, make plans, practice socialization, work together and pray together. Mealtimes foster a great sense of belonging in children. And all the senses are incorporated.
  • Create a family bucket list. Plan experiences you would all like to do to make memories together.
  • Honor bedtime routines by reading, sharing conversation, saying bedtime prayers and wishes, reviewing the day, making a grateful list, and cuddling.
  • Plan family vacations that make unforgettable memories. Go to a pro-football game. Swim with turtles. Learn to surf. Play in the sand. Collect seashells. See Cinderella. Go sailing. And always, take tons of photographs. Photos make timeless memories.
  • Engage in conversations about the special times you spent with your mother, father, and family, describing the senses you remember in your childhood.
  • Play music in your home. Burn candles. Make comfort foods. Build a fire. Create arts and crafts. Bake. Knead dough. Roll out and decorate cookies. Make meals together. Play football in the fallen leaves. Cut down a Christmas tree. Plant a garden. Make jewelry. Build a model car or a playhouse.
  • Choose ways as a family to give back to the community. It’s a great way to spend family time together, and it fosters an emotional connection to the outside world.

Wishing you and your families many opportunities to create timeless “sense memories” together. For more ideas, look at our Pinterest board ‘Creating & Saving Memories’.

Toni Abbey, RN, OCN, ONN-CG
Cancer Support Community Southwest Colorado