How Cancer Survivors Approach the Holidays

Tips on how cancer survivors can reshape the holiday to meet their own needs

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Robert Carlson, M.D Beth Bolt, RPh

The holidays are an emotionally charged and demanding time of year for many people. And the holiday season is no less demanding for those with cancer.

With all the excitement, anticipation and expectations of the holidays, there can be a lot of stress and work around planning, decorating, gift buying, meal preparation and socializing. 

If you’re living with cancer, the holidays can be overwhelming and may leave you feeling blue.

dailyRx News spoke with someone who understands these stresses and has some wonderful ideas for reshaping the holiday to match the needs of families affected by cancer.

Angela Usher, MSW, is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker at the University of California, Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center. She’s an expert in caring for the psychosocial needs of cancer patients and their families.

Accept that cancer will affect the holidays

Usher urges individuals to be realistic and understanding.

“No matter what stage you are with regards to your diagnosis — awaiting results, undergoing treatment, recuperating from treatment, or in the hospital — your holidays will be impacted by cancer. It is important that you realize that things will be different from the past and to adjust your expectations accordingly,” Usher said.

Talk about how you’re feeling

Usher urges those she works with to be open with family and friends about what they’re experiencing.

“Open up the discussion with your loved ones about how this season feels different. This will help you to take care of yourself, state your needs and clear up expectations as early as possible," Usher said.

“Your loved ones need to know what it is like for you this time of year, and what you want to do and what feels like too much,” she said. “Even if you do not have specifics, just let them know, ‘This time of year feels different to me than it has before. I want to celebrate the holidays, at the same time I want to acknowledge that I need to slow down, too. I am going to let you know what works best for me and let you know what I can and cannot handle which will depend on how I feel each day.'"

How to deal with fatigue

“Understand your limitations and accept that you may not be able, willing, or interested in participating in the holidays as you may have been in previous years,” Usher said.

The American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) offers some other suggestions for dealing with fatigue:

  • Talk to your doctor about any changes in your energy levels.
  • Make a list of all the holiday events you usually participate in, and choose to take part only in your favorites.
  • Maybe combine events or change the location so you don’t have to travel as far.
  • Ask your friends and family for help with whatever it is you need help doing.
  • Don’t be afraid to say no; be honest and say you simply don’t feel up to participating.
  • Keep your celebrations simple to celebrate what’s most meaningful for you.

Create new traditions

In an effort to simplify your celebrations, Usher suggested, “You may be able to come up with some festive activities that do not require a good deal of preparation or energy. For example, instead of shopping for gifts for each important person in your life, perhaps exchange gift cards or create a certificate of a future event you and that person can share together.

“Also remember that the holidays are a great time to express love and appreciation for the blessings in your life. The people who help you and provide you love and care will enjoy knowing that you appreciate them. Words of love and gratitude are a meaningful gift," Usher said.

“Think of some activities you can do with family and friends that don’t require a lot of energy or preparation. Perhaps watch a holiday movie together, drive around and look at holiday lights or order a yummy ‘to go’ meal from a favorite restaurant,” she suggested.

Tips for dealing with anxiety

This year may be different because you have been living with a serious illness that can be overwhelming on many levels — gathering information, learning treatment options, making and going to appointments, getting test results, undergoing treatment and managing side effects, organizing records and dealing with the financial aspects of the disease.

Add the pressures of the holidays, and whatever you’re feeling is completely understandable.

ASCO suggests it may be helpful to realize you are not alone as you cope with your cancer diagnosis and treatment. So know that it’s okay to:

  • Feel free to talk about what you’re feeling without fear that you will dampen the holiday spirit.
  • Call on the support of your friends and family to listen to your concerns.
  • Don’t be afraid to look ahead and plan for the future.
  • Set some new goals and make some New Year’s resolutions to help you gain perspective and a sense of control.
  • Focus on the things that matter most to you and leave the rest behind.
  • Find some online groups where you can share your concerns and receive feedback from others living with your condition.

Usher said it is important to stay engaged, though. “Be careful not to isolate yourself, even if you don’t have the energy or right mental space for a big holiday gathering — you can still connect with people important in your life and celebrate the year together in a way that is more tailored to your needs.”

How to deal with the emotions of others

Sometimes, friends and relatives can become emotional around you. And you might end up comforting them, letting them know you’re okay and they don’t need to worry about you. It can be upsetting for you to be thrust into this role.

Should this occur, Usher recommended, "The way your family or friends react to your illness is not in your hands. As hard as it may be to witness your loved ones' emotions, you have to be careful that you don't feel the need to turn into their caretaker or that you need to protect them from bad news.”

She continued, “The adults in our lives need to be able to have honest emotional reactions and take care of themselves. It is important to your well-being that you not feel responsible for the emotional reaction of others."

Be aware it could be more than the blues

According to Usher, “It is important to recognize the difference between the ‘holiday blues’ and clinical depression. If you are worried that you may have serious depression, please seek help from a healthcare or mental health professional without delay. “

Usher concluded by saying, “The holidays can be stressful for all of us. These feelings may increase for those with a cancer diagnosis and those who love them. To manage fatigue and stress through the holidays, discuss expectations and limitations and open those lines of communication early. Finding creative — and less stressful — ways to celebrate the holidays may build new traditions that you continue to enjoy.”

Review Date: 
December 16, 2013