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Handling the Holidays When a Loved One Has Cancer

by Dave Balch

For over two decades, celebrities have entrusted Coping® to tell the world about their personal experience with cancer. We are proud to present this exclusive interview from our archives and hope that it will inspire and encourage all who read it. This article was originally published in Coping with Cancer magazine, November/December 2007.

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Don’t you just love the holidays? Shopping, getting together with family that you only see once a year, with all the great family fights that you’ll talk about for years, shopping, decorating the house, shopping, wrapping gifts, shopping, and baking lots of cookies and cakes. Not to mention the shopping … Yikes! The holidays are stressful enough, even when you’re feeling fine. My wife has cancer, and I can’t handle it. Let’s just skip it this year.

Unfortunately, the realities of life are that people expect you to do at least some of the things you’ve always done. They expect you to go to their parties, and besides, they want to see you because they love you. They expect you to buy gifts and wrap them; after all, they will be getting gifts for you. They expect you to decorate, have your tree, or light your menorah, cook holiday meals, etc. And if you don’t do these things, well, they will be disappointed (or at least it feels like they will be disappointed).

Therein lies the rub. Their expectations become your stresses. They mean well, they want only the best for you, and they think they know what you’re going through, but usually they don’t. Not really.

The result is that we feel pressure to meet their expectations because, after all, the last thing in the world we want to do is disappoint. Let’s re-think this for a moment.

If “taking care of us” means saying no, then maybe that’s the best option.

Author of Article photo

Dave Balch

When growing up, you are taught that life isn’t always about you, that you are not always going to be the center of attention, and that you have to be considerate of other people. Generally, I agree, but not now. This is about me (us). This is a difficult time in my (our) life, and I need to take care of me (us) first.

If “taking care of us” means saying no, then maybe that’s the best option. As caregiver, it is my job to take care of us first; it is my responsibility to say no if saying yes will put undue pressure on us. If anyone gives me a hard time and insists, they are only creating more pressure, which is the last thing I need. I have to stay strong for us.

I’m not suggesting that you sit in a dark corner until the holidays are over. I’m saying that you have the power to choose what feels right to you, and to say no to everything else. At this time in your life, an attitude of self-preservation is more important than trying to please everyone else at your expense.

Let’s face it; you may have limited physical and emotional energy for a while, so you have to budget the energy you have and choose to feel okay about saying no when you run out.

What about those holiday gifts? Where are you going to find the time and energy to go shopping? Here’s an idea: shop online. You can avoid the crowds, limit exposure to the elements and sources of infection, and save your energy all at the same time. Many retailers will even wrap and ship them for you. If you love all the hustle and bustle, then you may choose to spend your energy at the mall, knowing that you may have to skip something else. With shopping, at least, there is an alternative.

But when do you accept invitations, and when do you politely decline? What should you do around your own house, and what should you skip? I think that the true test is how you feel. Period. If you feel like doing something, do it. If you don’t, don’t.

Decorating your home may help you feel a sense of normalcy when your life feels anything but normal. If so, that’s important. Do it, even if it means that you won’t have the energy to do something else.

Give yourself permission to turn things down and even, maybe, disappoint someone, to do as much as you feel like and then stop, and to think of yourself first. Take care of yourself, and don’t apologize to anyone. You deserve it!

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Dave Balch was caregiver to his wife during four bouts with breast cancer. Now he is on a mission to help other caregivers and survivors by providing resources he wishes would have been available to him. He is author of Cancer for Two and speaks professionally about coping strategies.

To subscribe to Dave’s monthly newsletter, “Caring and Coping: a caregiver’s perspective on cancer,” visit

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, November/December 2007.