Holidays When You're In Cancer Treatment

by Jane Ashley

The holiday season is rapidly approaching. Whether it’s Thanksgiving, Diwali, Christmas, Boxing Day, Hanukkah, Kwanza, Three Kings Day, St. Lucia Day, Ramadan, Winter Solstice, St. Nicholas Day or New Year’s Eve/Day ( Saint Basil's Day in Greece) , every nationality and faith seem to have a holiday that occurs in November, December or early January. 

Gift Exchange

Those from other countries bring their holiday traditions with them here to the United States. Almost all “winter festivals and holidays” seem to be centered on food, family, and friends.

If you’re in active treatment for cancer or have just completed treatment, you may be wondering how to carry on beloved family traditions while in the midst of cancer treatment/recovery from treatment.

First, be honest with yourself.

I was diagnosed in October. My initial reaction when I thought about the holidays was emotional. I told my husband, “We just won’t do Christmas this year.” He said, “Whatever you decide.” I thought about my first reaction for a couple of weeks and realized that I’d be even more miserable by omitting the celebration of Christ’s birthday from my life.”

If you’re always hosted big family meals, you might not be able to physically handle the cleaning, household chores and cooking while in active treatment. Here are some factors to consider.

Side effects. Chemotherapy, radiation and other treatments take both a physical and emotional toll on patients. You might be recovering from a complex surgery. Fatigue, nausea, and neuropathy may limit your ability to clean, decorate and prepare food. You might not be in a holiday mood from the physical stresses of your diagnosis and treatment.

Financial stress. Even with insurance, cancer treatment is expensive. Copays are more than most of expect. Throw in lost wages plus additional travel expenses related to treatment, and you may be facing tight family finances.

Fear. It’s difficult to feel festive when you are afraid that your treatment may not work or worry about the fear of recurrence.

Dynamics in the family. Unfortunately, family dynamics sometimes change after a diagnosis of cancer. Personal or work relationships may also change. It’s best to avoid “family drama” during the holidays.

Don’t set yourself up with unrealistic expectations for what you’ll be able to do. You may have always been “Super MOM,” but acknowledging that may not be possible this year will help you avoid emotional disappointment and excessive fatigue because you took on too many projects.

Rethinking the holidays and your plans.

Once you’ve realized that you might have to change your holiday celebrations for this year, accept the reality and explore your options. Think of the traditions that are most important to you and explore ways to accomplish them without over-committing yourself.

Big holiday dinner for the family. If you’ve always held a big dinner for all the family and still want to host a dinner, enlist the help of others. If you have grown daughters nearby, ask them for help – they will probably be thrilled to help you. Consider a change of format to potluck - provide a spiral-cut ham and a huge platter of fried chicken – everyone else brings a side or dessert. Use festive paper plates, cups and napkins. Enlist someone to fill a cooler with ice and canned drinks. Ask everyone to put $5-10/per person in the basket to help defer your expenses.


Decorating. If you’ve always spent a week or more decorating, scale down your expectations. Skip all of the extras and get someone to help you with the tree. A tree with lights is sufficient. For empty nesters, skip the 8-foot tree and get a pre-lit tabletop tree.

Gifts. Cut back on gift-giving – you’ve got enough financial output with your cancer treatment and related expenses. Your family and friends will understand. Start a new family tradition with a White Elephant, Yankee Swap or Dirty Santa exchange.

Shopping. Shop early and shop online. Set a budget and stick to your budget to avoid costly credit card bills in the New Year.

Accept offers of help. Many of your family members and friends truly want to help. Allow them to bring food or gift certificates. Don’t feel guilty – they wouldn’t do these things unless they really wanted to be of help to you.

Get plenty of rest. Having visitors expends more energy than you realize. Take plenty of breaks for a quick nap. Go to be on time. Don’t waste energy on unimportant tasks.


The emotional side of the holidays.

Holidays spent with family can be emotional. For many of us, our emotions are already raw from the shock of the diagnosis and the unexpected side effects. Add in hair loss, weight loss or gain, unexpected fatigue before the party you were looking forward to attending, your chemotherapy schedule delayed/changed due to blood counts – all of these things and more make too rigid a schedule unrealistic. So just take some deep breaths and do what you can do and apologize for the rest.

If you’ve just finished treatment, try to put your fears aside. The fear of recurrence can be quite strong during the first year after treatment. All the worry in the world won’t change your scan results. Holidays are, instead, a perfect time to reflect on your treatment and feel gratitude that this part of your life is over.

If you are a caregiver and lost your loved one this year, there’s no doubt that the holidays will be especially difficult. Try to think of something positive you can do to honor your loved one. Perhaps they were always a bell ringer for the Salvation Army, you might find that volunteering to do that this year will help you feel more connected to your loved one. If your grown children are going to visit you, cook the favorite foods that Daddy always loved – remembering the good times helps replace your grief.

Finally, if you begin to feel depressed, blue and down, speak to a member of your healthcare team about your feelings. Some antidepressants or anti-anxiety meds will help lift those dark feelings.

We can’t change the calendar and skip November and December so do your best to find a “little bit of joy” every day.

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