6 Practical Tips for Navigating the Holidays with Cancer

6 Practical Tips for Navigating the Holidays with Cancer


Sarah Flowers

7 days ago at 2:49 AM

For some of us the holidays are a time of great cheer. For others more complicated feelings emerge. Here are 6 practical ways to cope with cancer during the holidays.

For some of us the holidays are a time of wonderful cheer and festivity, particularly in situations where patients have completed treatment and are enjoying a newfound lease on life. For others, they’re a time of great sadness and complexity as we think back to holidays past, mourn for the holidays we won’t be there for in the future, or meet up with friends and relatives for the first time in the new bodies cancer has given us.

No matter how you’re feeling, it’s important to give yourself permission to feel cheerful and excited if that’s how the holiday spirit moves you, but also not to blame yourself if you feel sad, alone, overwhelmed, or afraid too. All of us are fighting a battle, and as we know too well heavy life events don’t take a break for the holidays. Read on for 6 pro tips from survivors and patients on how to get through the holidays with your mental health intact while you’re dealing with a cancer diagnosis.

1. Stay in tune with your feelings.

There is no “right” way to feel about the holidays this year, or any year. Give yourself permission to feel all your feelings, whether that means hosting an over-the-top celebration or staying home in your PJs. Many people feel it’s helpful to keep a journal or to use a mood tracker during this time, or to plan debriefs with a supportive friend or family on a regular basis so that you can keep yourself honest about how you’re feeling.

2. Don’t blame yourself.

Getting cancer was never your fault, but the holidays can be a time of year where it’s particularly easy to place blame on ourselves or feel guilty for feeling low during the holiday season. We’re all doing the best we can, so be sure to be kind to yourself during the holiday season and always and allow yourself to experience your feelings, no matter what they may be.

3. Practice leading conversations about your health where you want them to go.

Particularly if this is your first year diagnosed with cancer or if you’re currently in treatment for a relapse, your physical appearance might have changed since many of your friends and relatives last saw you and you might not be able to eat all of your favorite foods. Many patients find that it can be helpful to phone ahead in advance to let the host know what's going on. Something simple like "Hi Aunt Sally, I just wanted to let you know I might look a little different this year because of my cancer treatments. I'm still the same old me, but I might need to have a quiet corner to rest in occasionally, and my taste has been affected so I might not be able to have your famous stuffing this year" can work wonders to clear the air and minimize the number of questions you're fielding on the day of the event.

Even so, you’ll definitely want to prepare yourself for the inevitable well meaning questions about things that are triggering to you by practicing a few one liners ahead of time that will allow you to change the subject gracefully when you’ve had enough. “Let’s wait till after the pumpkin pie to talk more about this” or “I’m doing OK, but I’m more interested in catching up with you and the rest of the family today!” both work well in a pinch.

4. Relinquish hope of family members changing into different people.

Fortunately for some, and unfortunately for others, your family members will probably all continue to be the same people as they were prior to your diagnosis. It’s easy to wish that they would be more supportive or help you more -- especially during the holiday season, but for your own mental health it’s best not to hold out hope that they will transform into the person you need them to be. The only thing you can control in your family dynamics is how you react, so for the sake of your own mental health and wellbeing it's best to realize that the words and actions of your relatives are a reflection on them, not on you.

5. Be a participant observer when you are triggered.

Regardless of how well you prepare, it's highly likely that at some point this holiday season someone will make a well meaning comment that you find highly triggering at a party, family event, or other festivity. Rather than getting angry in the situation, channel your inner scientist and be a participant observer. Train yourself to view the situation in the moment from the outside, collecting objective information and data about what odd circumstances might cause a person to ask a rude or triggering question, for example, rather than responding to it directly with anger or sadness.

Some family members may be triggering to you because they challenge your treatment protocol, criticize you for your choices, or even blame you for getting cancer ("you used to smoke in college, right?"). When this happens, keep in mind that our diagnosis causes our relatives and friends to have to face their own mortality too... because after all, cancer could happen to anyone. To feel in control people may criticize or question your approach, because (even if it's not) they need to believe their way is better and they would be fine in your situation. Often, it's the people who trigger us are also hurting, so we need to remember to give them love and acceptance too.

6. Start a new tradition.

Even though this holiday season might not be going like you'd hope, there's no time like the present for making new memories with friends and loved ones. Go out to dinner for Christmas instead of cooking at home. Plan a special movie day that will be distracting for the whole family. This is a great time to start a new tradition that suits your current physical and mental health needs. The sky’s the limit, it just might be your first annual time doing something new!

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1 comment

Last activity by Samantha McLain

Samantha McLain

One of the biggest problems is worrying about what others will ask since you are around so many more people during the holidays. The advice to lead conversations where you want them to go is so spot on. I like to use some quirky humor but then again I am a goof ball when it comes to that :)


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