The holidays! A festive time of joy! Right? That is not necessarily the whole picture, particularly if you are coping with cancer. Feelings of excitement, worry, hope, exhaustion, and happiness are common among cancer patients and their loved ones during this time of year. You might not feel like or be able to celebrate in the same way that you used to, but perhaps want to maintain some holiday traditions too. This is an opportunity for you to re-evaluate your priorities, and decide what feels most meaningful to you and your family.

Below are some suggestions that I recommend, which I hope help make the holidays more manageable for patients and their loved ones.

Acknowledge Where You Are At

  • It can be hard to let go of what you are used to doing during this time of year, and difficult to admit that things are different. There may also be expectations from others in your life to be up to the job of, well, what feels “normal.” This is particularly common among those who have finished active treatment.
  • It is important not to lose sight of the physical imitations incurred from current or past treatment. What I have found to be most commonly reported and misunderstood by family and friends is fatigue and discomfort.
  • The financial burden of cancer. Time away from work, medication costs, and other lifestyle changes make this a more difficult year financially.
  • Family dynamics and personal relationships may have changed. Cancer can put a tremendous strain on relationships, which can impact how you feel about with whom you celebrate the holidays. People may also be emotional about your heath going forward and it can be stressful to navigate how to communicate with others about your health.
  • Fear of recurrence of worsening condition. Patients often put a great deal of pressure on themselves to make the holidays extra special because the future is uncertain.

Reframe Expectations: Deciding What Can Be Comfortably Done

  • It can be helpful to make a list of events you usually participate in, and choose the favorites that you would like to join this year.
  • Whether you can handle hosting holiday events, or need to talk to someone else about taking over these traditions.
  • Talk with family and friends about combining events (such as decorating the house and making holiday treats) or changing location to minimize your travel.
  • Get help with tasks around the home to save time for more enjoyable activities.
  • This is a big and often really tough one, but incredibly important: don’t be afraid to say no. Some people find that they cannot handle large events, or have a new appreciation for more intimate gatherings. You have the opportunity to choose how to create peace and a sense of happiness in new and traditional ways. Maybe that is staying home, or escaping to a different and relaxing holiday environment.
  • Write an e-mail, schedule one-on-one time, or blog about your health status if loved ones are concerned. You can tell them about your follow-up care schedule and that you will keep them updated. Then, do your best to relax and enjoy yourself at holiday gatherings, hopefully, others will follow your lead.
  • Be realistic about what you can spend, limit the number of gifts you buy, and get creative if you have the energy! My seasonal favorite is homemade granola which is easy and deliciously healthy. Buying more gifts online this year, or sending out elves to do your shopping can help save your energy too.
  • Seek support: It is extremely common to feel overwhelmed and/or depressed at the holidays without the added burden of cancer. There are many resources available to help you cope, including therapy, psychiatry and chaplaincy. Please reach out and let us help.

Make Your Physical and Mental Health Your Priority

Keep in mind the following questions when making decisions this holiday season:

  • Have I honestly discussed my feelings and wishes with family and friends who may be impacted?
  • What are the benefits and drawbacks of changing this tradition?
  • Can other loved ones share in this task?
  • What is most meaningful about the holidays to me, and how can I hold on to that spirit?

Wishing you a wonderful holiday season filled with the love and warmth of family and friends!


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