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Cancer and the holidays: Tips for a less stressful season

Banner Staff
Cancer and the holidays: Tips for a less stressful season
Angela Hofmann credits yoga for her ability to manage stress. Here, she practices the cobra pose along the Charles River. (Photo: BeHealthy archives)

The holidays can be a festive and joyful time. But for those who have been affected by cancer, it can be stressful and full of anxiety. Treatments, like chemotherapy and radiation, can be time-consuming and exhausting. For those who have recently lost someone to cancer, the thought of preparing for the season may be more than they can handle.

“There is no right or wrong way to celebrate the holidays,” says Sarah Reed, a member of the LIVESTRONG Survivorship Center of Excellence Network at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute’s Adult Survivorship Program. “Dealing with illness, or grieving a loss, can make tasks such as shopping, baking and decorating overwhelming or impossible.”

Reed says it’s important to slow down and not worry about getting everything done: “It’s important to find what works and is comfortable for you.” 

Reed stresses that communication is key to getting through the holidays and enjoying them. She reminds people not to be afraid to ask for help, and in some cases, just say ‘no.’ If you or a loved one is struggling, realize that this holiday season may need to be spent a little differently.

Reed offers the following advice, which may help anyone find hope this holiday.

1. Keep it simple

Don’t worry about doing it all. Baking cookies or entertaining might have been easy in the past, but may seem overwhelming this year. Pick one or two special traditions and then ask family and friends for help.

Make a list of what is most meaningful and prioritize. Some families even create new traditions when a loved one is going through treatment. Instead of a big holiday party, this year, plan a small potluck dinner and have everyone pitch in.

2. Go online

Skip the long lines and mall mayhem this time of year. Crowded shopping centers may be filled with holiday cheer, but they can be overwhelming.

Shopping online lets people browse from the comfort of their couch. Invite friends over for gift wrapping or a cookie swap. Simple homemade gifts and cards, or even a phone call, can be just as special. The Internet is full of holiday e-card options and even grocery delivery services.

3. Express yourself

As the song says, this is the happiest time of the year. But if you or a family member is not feeling that way, it’s okay. Don’t feel obligated to be festive. Remember that it’s okay to show emotion — tears can bring a sense of relief. Pay attention to feelings and signs of stress.

Joy can be side-by-side with other emotions like sadness or frustration, and it can help to talk these through with a loved one or a professional counselor.

4. Listen to your body

Fatigue due to cancer treatment is a common problem, so try to balance activity with rest. Conserving energy this time of year is important for most everyone. It’s important for people going through treatment to plan activities when they typically feel at their best and be sure to set aside time to relax and recover. Also stick to healthy activities. Take a walk with family or friends.

5. Plan a little “me” time

Do something enjoyable for yourself. This can provide a break from worries and renew a sense of hope and satisfaction with life. Watching a favorite movie, talking to friends, playing seasonal music or getting some fresh air can give a sense of peace and hopefulness. Try to focus on things to be thankful for to help enjoy — and let go of — what you can.

Dana-Farber Cancer Institute