Cancer and the Holidays: Keeping it Simple, Keeping it Real

Ready or not, the holidays are just around the corner.

The holidays afford us an opportunity to look more deeply into life, take less for granted, reset priorities, renew spiritual faith, or connect more deeply with loved ones and strangers. But even the healthiest people can feel overwhelmed or overstimulated by the frantic pace, unrealistically high expectations, and the sensory overload of holiday music, advertisements, food and drink, decorations and displays, and social obligations.

People with cancer (and other serious illnesses), along with their caregivers, often feel out of sync with the celebratory atmosphere and have unrealistic expectations of themselves and others. They may look at the holidays with ambivalence and even trepidation. The prospect of a new year may raise questions: "Will the cancer come back next year?" "If it does, how will I manage it?"

Some in cancer treatment -- and their caregivers -- may wonder if they have the stamina to get through the holidays and another round of treatment. Those who once avidly shopped and entertained might now dread the prospect of doing either.

Visiting loved ones for the first time since undergoing treatment can be comforting and heartwarming. For some it can also be awkward and anxiety provoking, especially having to deal with others' reactions to their diagnosis or changed appearance.

And then there are financial concerns. Cancer treatment is expensive, unmanageably so for those who have no medical insurance or who are underinsured, or who find themselves unable to work. Those under financial stress face difficult choices about what, if anything, they can afford when it comes to gift-giving.

If you or someone you love is facing cancer consider the following suggestions:

Allow your feelings: Life-threatening illnesses change the world as we know it. It is natural to feel sad, angry, despairing, confused, numb, or lonely. Ignoring and suppressing your feelings and pretending to be cheerful is likely to make the holidays more difficult.

If you have concerns about whether your usual holiday plans are right this year, it is okay to break with tradition. Allow yourself to change where, when, how and with whom you spend the holiday. Let others know if you don't if have the energy or the financial means to buy presents.

Spontaneity is great, but having a plan, even if you decide to change it, is likely to give you a greater sense of control, making it less likely that you will end up feeling isolated or blind-sided by others' expectations and decisions.


Try to get enough rest, nourishment, and exercise. Be mindful of your alcohol consumption. Alcohol is a depressant and can worsen your mood. Limit sugary treats as they too can leave you feeling depleted and depressed.

If there is someone in your life affected by cancer, offer them the gift of your listening and care. With holiday plans, let them lead. A phone call, card or email can also make a meaningful difference.

If you want to offer help, be specific: "Can I pick up anything for you while I'm at the grocery store?" is more helpful than "Let me know if there is anything I can do."

At a time when so many around you are caught in an endless round of buying presents, give yourself the gift of presence. Pause several times a day to refresh yourself and just be.

If you need practical support, reach out to understanding loved ones. They may be eager to help but not know how. Let them know what you need -- a cooked meal, help with shopping or hosting, prayers or kind and supportive listening.

In a world that extols health and vigor and promotes the illusion that life is controllable, the experience of cancer sometimes brings with it feelings of isolation and stigma. The antidote to loneliness is connection. To the extent you can, open yourself to others' attention and affection. If you have energy, offer your care to someone else -- a loved one or a stranger. Compassionate action helps us to transcend difficult circumstances and enter more fully into our shared human condition.

Kevin Berrill is a clinical social worker at Ann's Place, a community-based cancer support agency in Danbury, CT


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