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Coping with Cancer and the Holidays

A Delicate Balance

by Christina Bach, MBE, MSW, LCSW, OSW-C

Wellness image

Festive parties, neatly wrapped gifts, cheerful cards, elaborate meals, family traditions, New Year’s resolutions – there’s a lot to be excited about leading up to the holidays.

For many, the holiday season is a joyous time of reconnecting with family and friends, overindulging in seasonal treats, and observing long-standing tra­ditions (or creating new ones). However, along with good tidings and cheer, the holidays also bring steep expectations, obligations, and stress. When cancer is thrown into the mix, the season becomes all the more difficult.

Perhaps you’re struggling to sched­ule your treatments so you can attend the annual family gathering held 1,000 miles from home. Maybe you can’t afford to host your usual holiday party, let alone buy gifts for the kids, due to mounting medical bills. Or simply, after all you’ve been through, maybe you’re just not in the mood for a big celebration.

Regardless of your situation, you don’t have to choose between decking the halls and coping with cancer. Here are some tips to help you enjoy the season while balancing the obligations and expectations of the holidays and the demands of cancer.

You might decide to modify existing traditions or even create new ones.

Author of Article photo

Christina Bach

Remember the reason for the season.
The holiday season isn’t a competition to see who can spend the most money, travel the farthest, send out cards the earliest, wrap pres­ents the best, or bake the most cookies. Think about what the holidays mean to you. What tradi­tions does your family observe? Which ones are feasible given your health status, treatment schedule, and supportive care needs? Take time to reflect on your goals, wishes, hopes, and expectations for the holiday season, and focus on what’s most important to you and your loved ones. You might decide to modify existing traditions or even create new ones.

Prioritize your to-do list.
Write down the things you would like to do during the holidays this year. Whom would you like to see? Perhaps you have been away from work for some time and would really like to reconnect with your coworkers and thank them for their support. In this case, attending your company’s holiday party may take pre­cedence over another event.

Once you’ve made a list of things you would like to do, move on to the things you need to do and think of ways to make them easier on you. For example, if you are in charge of hosting your family’s Hanukkah dinner this year, you might ask that everyone pitch in to help cook, clean, and prepare for the party.

The events and traditions left over after you’ve made your want and need lists are the ones you might consider skipping this year; although, this doesn’t mean that they aren’t important to you. You can find other ways to engage in holiday traditions even if you won’t be physically present. For example, if you’re unable to attend your friend’s annual tree trimming party, send an ornament for her to hang on the tree in your absence. Instead of embarking on a marathon trip to the mall on Black Friday, wait until cyber Monday and shop online from the comfort of your home. If you don’t have the time or energy to prepare a grand feast, hire a caterer or go to a restaurant for a holiday meal. By shifting how you participate in traditional activities, you can conserve your energy for the things you need and want to do most.

Keep the lines of communication open.
It’s important to let your family and friends know your needs and wishes for the holiday season. Otherwise, they may assume that because you have can­cer you won’t be up for celebrating the holidays. If this is not the case, tell them so. It’s also OK to set limits and to say no if you aren’t feeling up to doing some­thing. Figure out what works best for you and your family, and take on the holidays accordingly.

Coping with cancer during the holi­days is a challenge, but finding ways to navigate the season on your own terms can help you make the most of this spe­cial time of year. Your “holidays by design” may turn out to be the most memorable yet.

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Christina Bach is an educational content specialist and psychosocial content editor at OncoLink (, as well as the education director for the Association of Oncology Social Work. Previously, Christina worked as a clinical oncology social worker in both inpatient and outpatient settings at Penn Medicine/Abramson Cancer Center in Philadelphia, PA.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, November/December 2014.