Handling the Holiday Season with Cancer: Tips for Coping While Celebrating

by Tara Probasco

Father and daughter sit with a book by the Christmas tree

If you’re living with cancer, “the most wonderful time of the year” may feel anything but. Navigating the merriment while also juggling treatment, side effects, and the psychological toll of your diagnosis can be both physically and emotionally taxing. You may not have the stamina for Black Friday crowds, extensive decorating, or elaborate get-togethers. Know that it’s perfectly OK to modify how you celebrate this year. Survivorship can create an opportunity to let go of the baggage of expectations and focus on what’s truly important. At Livestrong, we want to share strategies to make this season manageable, memorable, and meaningful.

Tweak Traditions

You may wonder how to maintain treasured holiday traditions when feeling tired or unwell. It may be helpful to think about what’s truly at the core of your traditions and adjust them accordingly. If you usually have a baking marathon with your kids, perhaps the actual joy comes from simply spending time together. Consider wearing matching pajamas and having a holiday movie marathon instead. If you typically host a lavish party, perhaps the real fun comes from seeing your friends. You can host a scaled-back holiday potluck, enabling you to enjoy the camaraderie without the added stress of putting on an elaborate event. Take the pressure off yourself to do everything exactly like you used to and give yourself permission to do things differently. You may find yourself creating new traditions that you will cherish for years to come.

“One thing that I’ve found helpful is to celebrate every milestone. My motto of my cancer journey was ‘cancer free by Christmas,’ and I am grateful that I was No Evidence of Disease by Christmas. My family supported me to make this milestone special. We kept up with this celebratory tradition, and I got to smash a piñata (something I also did when I first got diagnosed and after each chemo session).” -Rachel, breast cancer survivor

Make Time for Yourself

Self-care is crucial to maintaining your well-being and managing holiday stress. Plan ahead and carve out opportunities to decompress. Take a walk, play with a pet, read a book, soak in the tub, or listen to music. It’s essential to recharge your internal battery by scheduling time for relaxing and rewarding activities. You may also feel obligated to say yes to every invitation, but conserving your energy is essential. Make a list of events and pastimes that are most important to you and prioritize those. It’s okay to say “no” to others. Be mindful and try to plan activities when you typically feel your best. Lastly, don’t allow the demands of the holidays to sideline healthy habits like eating balanced meals, exercising, and getting enough sleep, which will help you to feel your best during any season.

Make a Plan with Your Healthcare Team

Talk with your healthcare team about your holiday plans. Don’t postpone appointments, as this may disrupt your treatment. If you have a special occasion coming up or are planning on traveling, let your doctors know in advance. They may be able to schedule treatments so that you don’t have to miss events that are important to you. Confirm that you know who to contact if certain members of your healthcare team are on vacation and ensure you have enough of your medication on hand.

Ask for Help

Don’t get caught in the trap of feeling like you must do everything on your own. If you’re tired or overwhelmed, delegate tasks like shopping, cooking, decorating, and cleaning. If you usually host a family gathering but don’t feel up to it this year, be honest with yourself and your family. It’s important to acknowledge that roles may need to shift. Ask another family member to host; they may already be looking for ways to help. Maintaining holiday traditions is important, but don’t feel guilty if you need someone else to take responsibility for them this year.

“This isn’t the way anyone wants to spend the holidays, but it’s a great reminder that the time we get to spend with friends and families is a precious gift. I would encourage all to make the most of all holidays!” -Phil, colon cancer survivor

Take Advantage of Technology

There are a whole host of online resources that can make your holiday experience a little easier. Let your fingers do the shopping if you’re not up to hitting a crowded shopping mall. You can browse from the comfort of your couch, and there’s often an option to have the gifts wrapped. Consider using e-cards instead of traditional holiday greeting cards. Download your favorite grocery store’s app and have your order delivered. Zoom and FaceTime are also excellent tools that allow you to connect with those you don’t have the time or energy to see in person.

Father and daughter using smartphone

Prepare for Uncomfortable Conversations

Decide how much information you want to offer to family and friends ahead of time. Prepare answers to the uncomfortable questions you may be asked in advance so you aren’t caught off guard. Remember that you don’t have to be an open book. Respond to probing questions in a way that fits your comfort level and your relationship with that person. You may also find yourself receiving well-meaning but unwanted advice about your treatment. If a friend or family member gives you the rundown on the latest “cancer-curing” supplement, simply thank them for their concern and move on. Don’t feel the need to educate others or explain your treatment plan.

“I’ve learned to give myself space, to be direct and to change the topic when I need a break. I try to prioritize my own emotional well-being without feeling selfish about that.” -Rachel, breast cancer survivor

Create Space for Your Emotions

Be kind to yourself if you feel less than festive this holiday season. It’s perfectly normal to feel out of step and disconnected as the rest of the world celebrates. Make time for honest conversations with your friends and family and express your feelings in ways that enable you to receive support. Think about what you really want from the holidays and communicate how you feel so your loved ones can adjust their expectations accordingly. It’s okay to admit that you don’t feel much like celebrating or are apprehensive of what the new year may bring. Don’t feel you must put on a happy face or suffer in silence. Allow your feelings to breathe by discussing them openly with a loved one or therapist. The holidays can also be an excellent time to reflect. Those who are dealing with the day-to-day challenges of coping with cancer often discover resilience and courage they didn’t know they possessed. Take time this season to acknowledge and celebrate your strength.

About the Author

Tara Probasco is an RN with over 15 years of experience and a Master’s degree in nursing education. She is also an avid equestrian, enthusiastic hiker, dog mom, pseudo-chef, and devoted wife.

Resources for You

If you are dealing with a cancer diagnosis amid an already overwhelming holiday season, Livestrong has resources that can help. The Livestrong Guidebook and Planner set is a companion for cancer survivors as they navigate the physical, emotional and practical concerns they may have during their cancer journey, offering a place to organize information and record experiences all in one place. Download for free

Handling the Holiday Season with Cancer: Tips for Coping While Celebrating was originally published in Livestrong Voices on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.