Thanksgiving and the holiday season are fast approaching, with all of their attendant festivities, gatherings, and traditions. But for individuals dealing with cancer, the holidays may not hold the same sparkle. Given the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the holidays may be even more stressful particularly for those in treatment or who are recovering from treatment.
Four years ago, I was recovering from treatment for breast cancer by the time the holidays rolled around. While I wanted to celebrate with my family because it had been a long year, I did take steps to limit the holiday’s stress on me and my family. If you’re dealing with cancer this holiday season, here are some tips for coping and celebrating.
Set the Bar Low
Think about your typical holiday activities and decide which ones are the most important to you and your family. Instead of hosting a large holiday party, which the CDC doesn’t recommend in any event, consider having a smaller holiday gathering and enlist the help of family and friends to help with the cleaning, decorating, and cooking. Scale down the meal. Perhaps, this year isn’t the time to make every person’s favorite holiday casserole.
Traditions, such as making latkes, decorating a Christmas tree, playing with a dreidl, caroling, or baking cookies, are an important part of many families’ holidays. While comforting, these traditions may be unrealistic for individuals dealing with cancer who may suffer from fatigue, changes in taste, nausea, or mobility restrictions. For example, if baking cookies for a whole day with the children is too tiring, limit the cookie baking to one favorite recipe and let the kids do most of the work. If you’re physically challenged as a result of treatment, skip caroling and play board games, watch favorite holiday movies, or do puzzles together.
Fill Your Cup First
It’s okay to say “No” during the holidays so don’t fill obligated to accept every invitation. Limit your involvement to those events that you enjoy. If you can’t manage a certain activity this year, be honest with your family and friends. And if others offer to take something off your holiday plate, let them help.
Reconsider Gift Giving
Cancer treatment can cause financial hardship for families. Consider scaling back gift giving by doing a Yankee Gift Swap or a Secret Santa to cut down on the gift list. If you’re creative, perhaps opt for homemade gifts and cards or take the time and make a call. Avoid large crowds at the malls and shop online. Many retailers are offering month-long black Friday sales this year. Or in lieu of gifts, ask family members and friends to donate to cancer support organizations.
Practice Healthy Habits
It’s easy to overindulge during the holiday season. For individuals with cancer, however, eating well, getting regular exercise, and sleeping are essential. Keep the long days and nights to a minimum if you’re fatigued. Go for a walk instead of munching on another holiday dessert. Give yourself time to rest and recover after activities.
Respect Your Emotions
Holiday greetings and songs are everywhere, but individuals dealing with cancer might not feel “happy” or “merry and bright.” And, that’s okay. You don’t need to feel festive. Indeed, you may feel anxious and worried about your mortality or recurrence. It’s okay to show emotion and share your feeling with loved ones, rather than avoiding them. A good cry can bring relief. But, if you feel overwhelmed or depressed, seek professional support to help you cope.
Hold onto Hope
Engage in activities that renew your sense of hope with life. Watching a favorite movie with family or friends or walking the dog can bring you a measure of peace and calm. Try to enjoy the season and let go of what you can.
Prepare for “Those” Conversations
If you’re visiting family members or friends you haven’t seen in a while, prepare them ahead of time for any changes in your appearance, such as weight or hair loss. Decide in advance how much information about your diagnosis and treatment you want to offer. Develop your own “go to” answer to deal with any uncomfortable cancer questions they may ask and practice it so you aren’t caught off guard.
When I was in treatment, one of my neighbors reminded me that I should let people help me because it makes them feel good. If you’re able, consider giving back to a local charity or organization. Donating winter coats, toys, or food to others in need can improve your mood and strengthen a family bond.
Reflect on Where You Are Now
Take some time during the holiday season to reflect on your challenges over the last year and the strength you’ve shown. Your resilience is cause for hope, gratitude, and peace as you enter the New Year.