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Cancer and the Holidays

Finding Balance in the Busyness

by Joyce Hendershott, MSW, LISW-S, ACSW

Wellness image

It’s that time of year – busy schedules, high expectations, and increased stress. As a cancer survivor, you might be asking yourself how you can balance the demands of the holiday season with the limitations caused by your illness and treatment. You may be asking yourself, How do I manage my fatigue over the holiday season when there is so much to be done? How do I face holiday gatherings when I struggle with nausea? How do I get all of my decorating, shopping, and gift-wrapping done? How do I prepare family and friends, who haven’t seen me recently, for the physical changes caused by my treatment? How do I handle all of the holiday party invitations? What do I say about my cancer when the topic comes up? With a little preparation (and maybe some delegation), you can be in control of how you celebrate the holidays this year.

Minimizing Fatigue
To manage your fatigue, do only the activities you enjoy. Separate the musts from the maybes, and don’t be afraid to say no. Family and friends will appreciate knowing what can realistically be expected of you, and they will likely jump at the opportunity for taking on additional responsibilities to lessen your fatigue. Recognizing when you need to rest, and accepting offers of help from others, will allow you to preserve your energy for the occasions on your must list.

Managing Nausea
The aromas of the holiday season can present unique challenges for survivors undergoing treatment. If you have medication to help with nausea, take it at least 30 minutes before eating. Keep to foods that have minimal odors, and eat foods cold or at room temperature. Designate one person to help you avoid foods that might upset your stomach. Let family members know that it would be helpful to you if they (not you) would prepare the meal, so you are not exposed to the cooking odors. And if you are attending a holiday gathering, offer to bring a food item that you know you can enjoy.

Do only the activities you enjoy. Separate the musts from the maybes, and don’t be afraid to say no.

Author of Article photo

Joyce Hendershott

Prioritizing Your Time
Focus on the gatherings that mean the most to you, and accept invitations only if you are up to it. Be aware of how you are feeling, and give yourself permission to be in the moment. To accomplish the extra activities associated with the season, you may want to consider sending e-cards instead of mailing traditional holiday cards, hosting a simple get-together for family and friends to assist you with the tasks of decorating and gift-wrapping, or changing the way you shop by using the Internet or purchasing gift cards. This may require a little planning, but using these strategies will save you time and help conserve your energy for other events you want to enjoy during the season.

Talking About Cancer
When the topic comes up, you may feel unsure about what to say concerning your cancer or how to prepare visitors for the changes in your appearance or functioning. It may help to speak with them in advance to let them know you might not look the same as you did the last time you were together. Don’t feel like you need to give your full history. Only share what you feel safe sharing. Remember, your cancer does not need to be the focus of the celebration. Let family and friends know you look forward to spending time with them, but that you may not be able to participate in every activity in order to balance time with family and time for rest.

Holidays are intended to be occasions of celebration, and this year may be just the right time for you to strengthen important relationships and experience personal renewal. You may need to revise plans or activities to accommodate your needs at this time. But with a little innovative thinking, you can still enjoy your favorite holiday activities, and maybe even discover some new ways to celebrate the season.

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Joyce Hendershott is a licensed independent social worker and the clinical program manager for the department of Patient Education at The Ohio State University James Cancer Hospital and Solove Research Institute in Columbus, OH. She is also a member of the Academy of Certified Social Workers and serves on the board for the Association of Oncology Social Work.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, November/December 2009.