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Questions & Answers about Coping with Cancer during the Holidays


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People with cancer and their friends and families often approach the holidays with a mixture of conflicting feelings: excitement, worry, hope, exhaustion, and happiness. You may wonder how to maintain old holiday traditions, handle seeing friends after treatment, or be a supportive family member. Here are some common questions asked during the holidays and helpful suggestions.

Q: How should I manage fatigue during the busy holiday season?
A: First, discuss any change in your energy level with your healthcare provider. Then, make a list of the events you usually participate in, and choose the favorites you would like to continue. Enlist the help of your family and friends. For example, if you would still enjoy hosting a holiday dinner, but don’t have the stamina to cook and decorate, ask family and friends to help with some of the tasks.

Talk with family and friends about combining events (such as decorating the house and making holiday goodies) or changing locations to minimize your travel. Get help with household tasks to save time for more enjoyable activities. And don’t be afraid to say no. Some people find they have a new appreciation for simpler, smaller gatherings. Make this holiday season about rediscovering peace and happiness in old and new ways.

Q: I’ve finished my treatment and have a good chance of recovery, but I know others are still worried about me. How can I keep their spirits up?
A: The transition from treatment to long-term recovery can be an emotional time for family members and friends. There are many ways to reassure those who care about you before the holidays: write a letter, schedule a time to meet for coffee or a walk, or let people know how you’re feeling by phone. You can tell them about your follow-up care schedule and that you’ll continue to keep them informed. Then, relax and enjoy yourself – others will take your lead.

Q: I find myself feeling anxious since my cancer diagnosis, and I’m not sure how to relax.
A: Anxiety is a very common feeling; for some people, it is based on worries about treatment, side effects, and prognosis. For others, it is a more generalized worry that can result in panic attacks characterized by sweating, heart palpitations, and difficulty breathing. The first step is to get clear, accurate information about your diagnosis, treatment, and prognosis. Don’t be afraid to ask for this from your healthcare providers as many times as necessary until you understand; they know the information can be difficult to absorb and will review it until you understand it.

Next, when you are feeling anxious, consider talking with a friend or family member or joining a support group. Knowing you are not alone can be a great relief. If you are finding that your anxiety keeps you from doing your regular activities, talk with a social worker or other counseling professional. Many people find relaxation techniques helpful, including deep breathing, gentle stretching, meditating, listening to music, and journaling. In some cases, anti-anxiety medication prescribed by a doctor is a helpful addition to counseling.

Q: My wife has had side effects from her cancer treatment, including losing her hair and losing some weight. How can we handle seeing people over the holidays who may not be prepared for the changes in her appearance?
A: Consider writing a letter or calling family members to let them know of any developments before your visit. Make sure she is not disconnected from support simply because people don’t know the “right” thing to say. People who are facing serious illness and treatment often feel isolated by virtue of others’ discomfort with their situation. Let those who care about her know that although she has gone through a difficult time, she still enjoys holiday music, laughter, and good company.

Q: What are some good gifts for a person going through cancer treatment?
A: Some of the best gifts are those that reflect who the person is apart from the cancer. Examples include concert tickets, art and craft supplies, books, music, museum passes, sporting event tickets – anything that will show you still see him or her as a person, not a patient.

Q: I’d like to volunteer somewhere over the holidays, but I don’t know where to start.
A: Check with local hospitals, community agencies, churches, temples, wellness centers, or any group that is close to your area and of interest to you. Many organizations rely on the dedication of their volunteers. If you are the friend of a person with cancer, you can also offer to help with laundry, get groceries, go to the post office, or give a ride to a doctor’s appointment.

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Excerpted with permission from, copyright © 2008 American Society of Clinical Oncology. All rights reserved.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, November/December 2008.