Cancer Featured

Tips for handling the holidays with a cancer diagnosis

Written by Denise Bilodeau

The holidays can be overwhelming for many people, but they can be especially challenging for patients and their caregivers who are also dealing with appointments, treatments, side effects, and the emotional strain of a cancer diagnosis. The ongoing risk of COVID exposure adds yet another layer of potential stress at the holiday time when the focus becomes friends and families getting together.

Going through cancer treatment during the holidays can make it difficult to embrace what has typically been one of the happier times of the year. Patients and families may struggle with how they can celebrate when they or someone close to them is coping with cancer. Patients wonder if they will feel well enough to enjoy the holidays when they going through radiation treatment, receiving chemotherapy or recovering from surgery. There are questions about whether they will have the energy to participate in family celebrations and worries about what the coming year will bring. While everyone else is moving ahead with holiday preparations and celebrations, many of our patients are facing a very uncertain future. They may feel pressured (by themselves or others) to carry on with the traditional holiday rituals, even though they may not have the physical or emotional energy to do so.

As the holiday season gets into full swing, here are some tips for families affected by cancer.

Focus on your own well-being

Whether you are a patient or a caregiver, first and foremost you have to focus on your own wellbeing. Eat well, ensure that you get your rest — including naps — and stay hydrated. Do not abandon your regular routines to accommodate the hectic holidays as these routines are what have helped you cope so far. Allow yourself to do less than you are accustomed to doing during this season and allow yourself to ask for help, whether that is with picking up gifts or bringing in food or helping with decorating and cleaning. Try to limit your visits and visitors to friends and family that share or respect your approach to COVID precautions.

It’s OK to say no

Remember that it is OK to say no. You do not have to accept every invitation or accommodate every request. Most importantly, be flexible. Make plans with the understanding that you may have to reschedule or change plans depending on how you or your loved one is feeling that day – and let people know that when you accept or offer an invitation. Cancer and its treatments weaken your immune system, making it harder to fight off viruses and making you more vulnerable to COVID. With this in mind, limiting your outings and contacts becomes even more reasonable from both an energy-conservation perspective but also from a health-related perspective.

Plan ahead

Clinic closures may be a source of stress for you or your loved one. It is important to know what dates your Cancer Centre is closed over the holidays and who to contact in the off hours if you run into difficulty. Ensure that you have enough of all your prescription medication to last through the holidays.

Prepare for questions

The family and friends you see over the holidays may ask questions about your diagnosis and how you are doing. Allow people the benefit of the doubt that their questions are expressions of concern. But know also that you do not need to explain your medical situation or provide any information beyond what you are comfortable disclosing. It may be helpful to coordinate an exit plan with one of your caregivers if you feel their questions or inquiries are becoming overwhelming.

Remember things may be different – but try not to focus on those differences

This season may not be like holidays from the past so try not to pressure yourself to make it so. The past two years of COVID have prepared many people to expect different or less over the holiday season. Give yourself permission to do what feels safe and comfortable to you. You may come away with new traditions while still being able to participate — instead of making the whole Christmas dinner, offer to host a potluck. Or hand the tradition to a sibling or child. Try not to focus on what might be missing, on what tradition wasn’t kept, or on what might be different about this year’s holiday season from those in the past. Rather, try to focus on the moment and enjoy your celebration in whatever form it takes. Remember what the holidays are truly about – a time for being thankful and sharing with others.

If you have concerns about how to cope with the stress of the holidays, talk to your health care provider and let them know how you are feeling.  Support is available through the Patient and Family Support Program at the Odette Cancer Centre. Wellspring also has various support programs available.

This blog has been updated from a previous version.

About the author

Denise Bilodeau

Denise Bilodeau is a social worker at Sunnybrook’s Odette Cancer Centre.

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