Coping With Cancer During the Holidays

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By News Team on December 17, 2020

This year, celebrating the holidays is complicated for everyone, as concerns about coronavirus have us setting aside familiar traditions and missing the people we love. The holidays represent:

  • Time with family, where memories are made and good food is shared
  • Rituals that may be faith-based and/or family-oriented
  • Respite from the daily grind
  • Sensory excitement and nostalgia–seeing the lights, smelling pine and cinnamon, hearing holiday music

According to Debby Quick-Conner, L.C.S.W. with Carilion Clinic Hospice, all of those traditions and experiences can be impacted—either positively or negatively—when you or someone you care about has cancer.

Debby supports cancer patients and their loved ones every day, and she recently gave an online talk on coping with cancer...during the holidays...during a pandemic. Read on for some of her tips for everything from minimizing exposure to managing finances.

Managing Risk
Being immune-compromised places people with cancer at higher risk for all kinds of infections, not just COVID-19. Consider the following before attending holiday gatherings:

  • What precautions have your guests/hosts been taking? Are they healthy?
  • Are they aware of your condition or that of your loved one?
  • Have they been diligent with mask wearing, social distancing and hand hygiene?
  • Are they self-isolating prior to the gathering? 

Debby's tip: "Remember that social media tells the story. If you check them out on Facebook, you will know more about the level of risk you'll be taking to gather with them."

Other considerations include: 

  • Will you be inside or outside? Risk of exposure is higher inside. 
  • Is there adequate ventilation? Open windows?
  • Is there enough physical space for appropriate social distancing?

Debby's tips: "Encourage guests to bring their own food and drinks, use recyclable dinnerware and cups and limit the number of people handling or serving food." 

Managing Expectations
Expecting things to be the same this year as other years will create even more stress and fatigue than the cancer already causes. And Debby points out that when facing the “unknown,” we can feel compelled to make this holiday perfect, placing even more pressure on ourselves. She offers several tips for keeping things simple:

  • Delegate responsibilities for cooking, decorating, shopping and cleaning
  • Limit your "bubble" to people who are caring, nurturing and supportive
  • Be honest and direct with others about changes in your level of energy and holiday participation
  • Focus on the people and activities most important to you, and modify them to meet your needs

Debby's top tip: "Learn to say no! Prioritize what's important, and put yourself first."

"Cancer and treatment side effects like fatigue, nausea, lack of appetite and changes in taste can affect how much food is enjoyed," she said. "Even smell sensitivities can impact how much cooking is done in the house."

Sometimes it's not our own expectations for a perfect holiday, but the expectations of our loved ones. Allow your own emotions to override others' expectations, and follow these tips to help everyone stay on the same page:

  • Be specific about your needs—you may have plenty of casseroles, but need help with shopping and cleaning
  • Remember that sometimes the anticipation is worse than the reality
  • Let others know about any physical changes if they haven’t seen you in a while
  • Allow extra time for travel and preparations
  • Set safety standards with your loved ones and stick to them

Making Hard Choices
Accept that a compromise may not be possible, and that others may be upset and unhappy no matter what.

This year more than ever, and especially when dealing with cancer, it's okay to skip holiday gatherings altogether.

Your feelings, your comfort and your safety are the priority. Even for those without cancer or other serious illness, COVID-19 is reason enough to not attend holiday get-togethers.

Debby's tip: "Focus on yourself. You will cope with your disappointment just as they will have to cope with their own."
Dealing With Pushy Relatives
Some family members can be difficult—and this is not likely the first holiday season you’ve noticed it! Don’t expect them to behave any differently than they have in the past, and take care of yourself when you engage with them:

  • Be honest, be firm and be done
  • Minimize your contact with these family members accordingly
  • If you must deal with them, try to do something relaxing beforehand such as listening to music or meditating
  • Avoid topics that are sure to set off a storm, and change the subject as needed
  • Use the broken-record technique in setting your own personal boundaries, repeating "I have to do what is right for me and my family"

Debby's tip: "Breathe!" 
Gift Buying and Financial Stress
Even in the perfect holidays in our memories, the holidays presented financial challenges for many. Cancer adds medical bills, prescription costs and often loss of income to those challenges. Debby encourages families to remember that how much or how little is spent is not the point, and to find alternative ways of giving. These include:

  • Suggesting your family/friend group picks names versus buying for all
  • Asking friends and family to donate to a cancer service organization rather than give gifts
  • Giving and asking for gift cards

Debby's tip: "Consider the gift of a handwritten note or personal phone call to express your appreciation of those you love."
Finding Alternatives
So you've wisely decided to keep things small, simple and safe this holiday season. Here are a few ideas to get you started making new traditions:

  • Share a small dinner with your "bubble"
  • Have a virtual dinner with loved ones outside your bubble
  • Share video chats, make phone calls, record videos, take and share photos...
  • Exchange traditional recipes 
  • Have a porch picnic, where everyone cooks individual dishes, boxes them up and places them on their porch for the others
  • Get matching pajamas and share pictures
  • Watch holiday movies "together"

Debby's tip: "Enjoy quiet activities together like playing board games, doing puzzles and reading a holiday classic."

Redefining Self-Care
Although this is the last item in Debby's list, it's the first item to consider.

"This is critical," she says. "Put yourself first!"

  • Get enough rest and pace yourself
  • Exercise – take walks, walk the dog
  • Eat well, as able, and stick to any dietary restrictions designed to help you handle treatment and/or your cancer symptoms
  • Acknowledge the demands and side effects of treatments can impact energy levels
  • Know your physical limits and stick to them
  • Do more restful activities – reading, puzzles, games
  • Stick to a routine

Debby's tip: "Seek support if you feel overwhelmed and/or depressed. This can be a trusted friend, family member, or a member of your health care team."
Her advice applies to caregivers too, who have their own stressors when trying to support their loved one. In addition, she suggests:

  • Acknowledging that this year is different
  • Accepting alternatives
  • Not pressuring your loved one 
  • Watching for signs that your loved one needs support
  • Reassuring your loved one that you are there for them—and giving them space when needed
  • Offering to do their shopping, errands, cooking and cleaning

And she offers some final tips, in the form of gift ideas:

  • Comfort items such as books, snacks, neck pillow, cozy PJs or blanket
  • Gift cards for meal or grocery delivery services
  • Movie or video streaming service (Netflix, Hulu)
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