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Surviving the Holidays while Surviving Cancer

by Melissa Minkley, MSW


Decide ahead of time which family traditions you want to participate in, like decorating cookies with your grandchildren, and which ones you might consider putting on hold this year.

It was a week before Christmas and I was visiting with my sister who had completed her last radiation treatment for breast cancer earlier that day. As she pointed to a stack of plastic bins filled with Christmas decorations, she sighed and said, “I feel so bad, I’m not up to putting them out this year.”

I reflected on similar boxes in my living room that needed my attention. I quickly realized that I didn’t have an excuse for not having my decorations up, but she did.

With all that she had been through with surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation treatment in the last six months, no one would challenge her lack of Christmas spirit. But this was hard for my sister to accept. She repeatedly apologized for not sharing the joy of the season with the rest of the family.

Yes, the holidays are a time for celebration, rejoicing, and family togetherness. However, the season can be a stressful time for those who are coping with cancer. The additional holiday demands can create feelings of being overwhelmed, mixed with feelings of joy.

The season can be a stressful time for those who are coping with cancer.


Melissa Minkley

If your family is coping with cancer this holiday season, here are some key points to consider as you plan for this joyful – and busy – time of year.

Make a Plan
Decide ahead of time which family traditions you want to participate in and which ones you might consider putting on hold this year. Feel free to adjust those plans as the holidays approach and your energy levels and mood change.

Create New Traditions
Make the most of your energy by creating new holiday traditions that will limit the amount of stress for yourself. Some traditions are comforting and have special meaning, but if not, consider letting the old, cumbersome traditions go and creating new ones.

Perform at Your Ability
Accept your limitations and don’t beat yourself up for not doing the things you think you should be doing. Be gentle with yourself. Respect what your body and your mind are telling you.

Ask for Help
Let others know how they can help you with shopping, baking, preparing meals, and wrapping presents. It’s OK to be specific about your requests for help. Those who care about you also have a desire to be helpful, and you can help meet their needs by allowing them to assist.

Try to keep the holiday planning and traditions simple. Shop online, use mail-order catalogues, or just give gift cards. Eat out at a restaurant for a holiday meal or host a potluck supper.

Communicate Your Feelings
Talking with your family and friends about your wishes for the holidays will help you clarify your needs. Share your needs and concerns with your loved ones and encourage them to do the same. Be respectful of one another’s desires for the holiday season and be willing to compromise when needed.

It’s difficult to avoid the holidays. But it is possible to make them easier to manage with some thoughtful planning, and by communicating your needs with family and friends. Most importantly, be kind to yourself. There is no need to apologize for your limitations or for those moments when you lack the holiday spirit.

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Melissa Minkley is a counselor with Stillwaters Center, a community-based cancer support organization in Waukesha, WI. Since 1999, she has helped people with cancer and their families cope with the many psychosocial challenges of a cancer diagnosis.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, November/December 2011.