The holidays can be incredibly stressful and even depressing for a cancer patient and their caregivers. You may be too exhausted to make travel plans or host your annual open house. Besides the physical challenges of being a cancer patient, the holidays can also be very difficult emotionally. Feelings may not always be joyous. In fact, during this time of year a cancer patient may deal with many complex and overwhelming feelings that they are able to stay on top of during the rest of the year.
Here are some tips for coping with cancer during the holidays**:
For the Patient...
Prepare yourself emotionally.
Holidays are often a time of remembrance, and of looking ahead. For a cancer patient, both of those things can cause feelings to surface that have been dormant or non-existent previously. Fears about your continuing treatments, recovery period, or how long your remission will last can all be overwhelming when faced with loved ones' questions and concerns. Know that you may be asked questions about your diagnosis and your current state of health, as well as your prognosis for the future, and decide how you will handle those potentially uncomfortable moments.
Plan to get together with friends, family or co-workers.
As much as is possible depending on your physical stamina, plans should be made to spend time with people who are supportive of you and your situation. Don't assume that you need to stay away from everything - it will only lead to feelings of distress and lonliness. That said, you don't have to do it all! Allow yourself to decline invitations if necessary. Your health and well-being is your priority.
Keep it simple.
If you have traditionally been the one expected to provide the meals and host the festivities, ask everyone to bring their favorite dish or suggest a restaurant instead. Perhaps you could host a mid-afternoon get together or dessert reception instead of a sit-down meal? Enlist friends or a maid service to help you prepare for a gathering, and clean up afterward.
Share the work.
You may be apprehensive of the holidays because you have always been the one who managed the planning. Take care of yourself by confiding in close friends or loved ones and asking them to take on part of the burden. Many times those closest to you want to help, but aren't sure what to do. Let them be there for you.
Be a creative shopper.
Share your feelings.
Seek out additional support if it's hard to talk to those you're closest to. Find a support group or just talk to someone one-on-one. Communicating your feelings - even the ones you find difficult to admit having - can help you feel less alone and more connected. (Contact Hope Cancer Resources with your questions about talking to a counselor.) As suggested above, be ready for questions about your cancer diagnosis and prognosis. If you would rather not discuss it, don't be afraid to post a little note at the front door or on the invitations you send out that designate your home as a Cancer-Free Conversation Zone.
Set goals for the New Year.
A cancer diagnosis can alter your future plans and even your personal priorities and life path. But there is nothing that says a re-evaluation is not valuable, no matter what your situation is. Even if you're not sure how things will turn out after your treatment, make plans and set goals. It can help strengthen your resolve to recover and get back in control of your life if you remind yourself that there's something out there to work toward.
For the Caregiver...
Remind your loved one that you care, and are there.
They may need a little extra reassurance that they are needed and loved, even if they can't do all they have done in the past. Give them gifts that speak to who they are apart from being a cancer patient. Let them know you see them as a person, not as a cancer patient.
No pressure, please.
Invite your loved one to join in holiday activities, but don't pressure them to be involved in every event. They may need to rest their body and their mind in order to make the things they choose to do more enjoyable.
Offer to help.
Offer to clean the house, do laundry, cook, get groceries, decorate, etc. Give your loved one the opportunity to decide what they want to do, and then help with the rest. If you're not sure what you can do to help, or aren't sure what they want to do for the holidays - just ask! Talk to them about their feelings and share your own. Working together to make decisions about holiday preparations can help each of you feel more connected.
Be sensitive to their feelings.
Don't expect your loved one to react to the stimuli of parties, family gatherings, and even small things like a quiet meal the same way as they have in the past. They may be grateful for the time with you, but feel guilty about the efforts others have to make to get them there or work around their physical needs. They may be frustrated about an unknown future and find it hard to fully appreciate being in the moment. These kinds of emotions are normal - allow them to feel what they feel and communicate those feelings to you (or not) without judgement.
Maintain some normalcy.
Your loved one probably wants to celebrate the holidays as normally as possible, without a lot of time spent dwelling on their cancer. Let them know you are with them because you love them and enjoy their company, not because you feel sorry for them.
**Thanks to CancerCare for the original fact sheet that inspired this post!