Tips For Surviving The Holidays With Cancer

by Jane Ashley

Being in active treatment during the holidays is challenging in several ways. It’s supposed to be a time of joy and cheer, holiday travels and gift giving. But most of us who have been just diagnosed or are in active treatment don’t feel very festive. Let’s look at the challenges facing us and see how we can cope.

Coffee And Cookies

The stress of our diagnosis.

Seriously, how can anyone think that someone in active treatment will feel festive or feel like celebrating the holidays that come in December. Whatever your heritage, December is likely to be a traditional month for celebration. We celebrate:

• Christmas
• Hanukkah
• Kwanzaa
• Boxing Day
• New Year’s Eve

Here are just some of the reasons that holidays are stressful for most cancer patients:

• We may be afraid of an upcoming surgery or other procedure. We may be stressed over the cost of radiation or chemotherapy. We may be angry about our diagnosis. It’s difficult to “get in the spirit” when our life has been turned upside down.
• We may not feel well — pain from a tumor or the side effects of treatment — may be overwhelming. Nausea, vomiting and extreme fatigue prevent many patients from evening being able to attend a family get-together.
• If our loved one has cancer, the holidays are just as difficult. We may wonder if this will be our loved one’s last holiday with us. If our loved one is in pain or suffering, who can we feel joyful?
• Many of us in active treatment experience low white cell counts, compromising our immune systems. We might even experience neutropenia and be told to avoid sick people or crowds.

Take Naps

Talk to your medical team before planning a trip that involves flying or a long drive. During cancer treatment, we are more prone to developing blood clots. Flying exposes us to crowds where we might pick up an infection. Staying closer to home might make more sense when we are in active treatment.

Ideas for a less stressful holiday.

First of all, don’t over-commit if family or friends ask you to do something. While it may be tempting to agree to host the big family get-together just like you always have, it’s probably not feasible. Don’t feel guilty for declining requests during the holidays. Cancer treatment is full of ups and downs — today, you may feel great, but tomorrow, you might feel awful.

Say No

• Delegate and ask others for help.
• Be realistic about what you can do — things don’t have to be “perfect” to be fun.
• Avoid negative people — surround yourself with supportive people who genuinely care about you.
• Take naps. Don’t over estimate how much energy you’ll have.
• Cook ahead and freeze dishes to avoid stress at the last minute.
• Be flexible. Your chemo might be delayed due to low blood counts and a missed chemo can throw all of your pre-conceived schedule out the window.
• Just say NO. Don’t over-commit.
• Shop on-line and stick to your budget.
• Regular exercise, even walking, relieves stress.
• Plan a pot-luck as your family gathering. Ask someone to bring paper plates and cups. Get someone to bring ice. Ask another family member to bring plastic utensils. The family will have just as much fun as always, but you’ll have less planning and less work afterward.
• Draw names for gifts.
• Don’t hesitate to ask another family member to host the family gathering if you or your spouse are suffering from debilitating side effects.
• Order groceries online. You might even have a friend who’ll pick them up for you.

Don’t forget your emotions.

Keep Warm

Be kind to yourself. Acknowledge that “going all out” like you usually do for the holidays isn’t possible when you have cancer. Most of your relatives, friends and co-workers will get it and understand that you don’t feel festive this year.

It’s okay to be sad or weepy. Everyone fears a diagnosis of cancer, and it’s okay to feel down or not too enthusiastic about the holidays. Do your best … be realistic … embrace the reason for the holiday.

Being a caregiver is essential and stressful too.

If you’re a caregiver, it’s especially important to recognize the emotional toll that cancer has wrought on you and your loved one. The two of you can still acknowledge the holiday. Dinner for two can be just as special as a large gathering — especially if your loved one is on strong chemotherapy or facing a complicated surgery in the new year. It’s okay to shift your special meal to a different day if the chemo or radiation schedule gets rearranged.

Take time and smell the roses.

Enjoy the little things about the holidays. Bake your favorite cookies. Bring out the holidays stockings. Watch that Christmas movie for the 10th time. Watch a Christmas Eve special on TV if you can’t go in person. Hold hands. Hug. This, too, shall pass. Hope is powerful.

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