Cancer, COVID-19, and the Holidays

Cancer, COVID-19, and the Holidays

8 Tips to Make the Most of This Holiday Season

by Kaylene Isherwood and Ashley Hubbard

The holiday season can be a wonderful time of year, filled with cherished traditions and quality time spent with loved ones. However, the holidays can also be stressful with doctor’s appointments, treatment, side effects, and the emotional strain of cancer. The holiday craze of planning, decorating, and cooking can become exhausting.

In addition, this year is even more stressful with the addition of COVID-19. After an almost entire year of social distancing, many were hoping things would be back to normal for the holidays. However, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues, there are several more things to consider.

When planning how to celebrate the holidays during COVID-19, it is important to consider the risk involved, especially when going through cancer treatment. Here are some specific questions to pose:

  • Where is the event being held?
  • How many people will be attending?
  • Are you and/or the other guests traveling to get there?
  • Do the other guests follow safety measures before and during the gathering?
  • Will the event be held indoors or outdoors?
  • Will the event include shared food or beverages?
  • How long will the visit/event be?

After an almost entire year of social distancing, many were hoping things would be back to normal for the holidays.

If you do decide to host or attend a gathering, these are some things to consider:

  • Keep a safe distance from others.
  • Wear a mask.
  • Encourage proper hygiene.
  • Promote safety around food and drinks, such as discouraging sharing.
  • Limit contact with commonly touched surfaces.
  • Set the table up outside, if possible, or open the windows and doors.
  • Do not allow pets to interact with people outside of their household.
  • Stay at home as much as possible for 7 days afterwards.
  • Consider getting tested afterwards even if you do not show symptoms.

According to the CDC, the following people should not attend in-person holiday gatherings:

  • People who have been diagnosed with COVID-19
  • People who have symptoms of COVID-19
  • Anyone waiting for COVID-19 results
  • Anyone who believes they have been exposed to someone with COVID-19 in the last 7 days
  • Anyone who is at increased risk of severe illness from COVID-19

While there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to celebrating, here are some tips to help you make the most of the holiday season.

1. Be flexible and remember the reason for the season.

Cancer takes time and energy, and it may not be sustainable to take part in every holiday tradition that you’re accustomed to. Reframe your expectations. Modify your usual holiday traditions to meet your needs this year, or create new ones that make the most of your energy.

Everything does not need to be “perfect” in order for you to have a wonderful holiday. To maintain realistic goals, make a list of the holiday activities you want and need. This will help you simplify the holidays by possibly replacing or eliminating physically taxing traditions, having catered meals instead of cooking, or delegating tasks to others.

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Think about what the holiday season means to you and your family. Don’t get too wrapped up in what might be missing or what traditions aren’t being kept. Remember what the holidays are truly about, and focus on the present moment.

2. Don’t overcommit yourself.

You may not always feel up for participating in holiday events, virtual or otherwise. Plan activities for when you feel at your best, and avoid overworking your body and mind. Take a break from the festivities when you need to. It’s OK to say no. You shouldn’t feel obligated to take part in every festivity that comes your way.

Saying yes to everything can lead to stress and exhaustion. Be gentle with yourself. Your loved ones will understand if you can’t participate in every holiday activity. Limit yourself to what you can manage and enjoy, and find a balance between activities and rest throughout the holiday season.

3. Communicate with loved ones and ask for help.

Express how you feel with loved ones, and let them know what you want to do this holiday season and what you need help with. You don’t have to do it all, especially by yourself. If someone offers help, accept it. This will allow you to preserve your energy during the long holiday season.

Be very clear about your limits and boundaries. You may feel like you’re disappointing others in order to keep yourself and your loved ones safe, but that is your decision to make. It is very possible that you and the people you normally spend the holidays with see things very different in terms of the pandemic. It is better to disappoint someone temporarily than to risk exposure.

4. Be with people who lift your spirits.

Spend time with people virtually who make you happier, and not those who drag you down. Don’t feel like you have to spend time around negative relatives just because it’s the holidays. When you have limited time and energy, it’s best to spend it with the people who matter most. Enjoy those special moments with your loved ones, and try not to focus on your cancer.

5. Take a breather.

Slow down. Sometimes the holidays get so busy we forget to relax. Allow yourself to do less than you’re accustomed to during this time of year. Strike a balance between downtime and social time. Set aside days where you don’t have much planned so that you don’t wear yourself out this holiday season. Find what’s meaningful to you. Give yourself plenty of “you” time, and do what makes you happy. Sit by the fire and listen to holiday music or watch a festive movie.

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6. Be mindful of your eating habits and keep moving.

It’s easy to overindulge when there are seasonal goodies everywhere you look. Control your portions. Eat balanced meals, and avoid drinking excessive amounts of alcohol. Give your body plenty of the healthy food it needs.

It’s OK to say no. You shouldn’t feel obligated to take part in every festivity that comes your way.

It’s easy to forget about exercise during the holidays, but it’s important to make time for it. Get your loved ones involved. Go on walks with family members, or build a snowman with the kids. Physical activity can help you feel better mentally and physically and give you more energy. Just make sure to talk with your doctor before starting any exercise program.

7. Make the holidays special from afar.

If you decide the risk is not worth it, there are still ways to make the season special. Consider developing some new traditions, such as trying new recipes or playing new games. Ask someone in the family to create a playlist that everyone in the family can listen to so you can all feel connected to the whole family.

8. Show your far-away and/or elderly friends and family how much you care.

The pandemic has been especially difficult on senior adults who are experiencing not only a more heightened sense of loss due to restrictions but also isolation and loneliness. And some may have lost more loved ones due to COVID-19. Reach out to these individuals in your life with phone calls, video chats, handwritten letters and cards, and socially distanced outdoor visits, if possible.

Encourage your children to write letters or draw pictures of what they love most about their grandparents and other loved ones. If you always bake cookies with your grandmother, arrange to bake them together over a video chat.

Other low-risk activities include:

  • Having a small dinner with only the people in your household
  • Preparing traditional recipes and delivering them via no-contact to family and friends
  • Having a virtual dinner and sharing recipes
  • Watching a sporting event, parade or holiday movie in a virtual get-together
  • Enjoying safer outdoor activities, such as driving around looking at holiday lights with the windows down or hiking

It’s common to feel confused, overwhelmed or depressed during the holidays, even without the added burden of cancer and COVID-19. If you find yourself struggling, it’s OK to reach out to your healthcare team for help. During your cancer journey, you and your loved ones have developed strong coping skills, and now is the time to build on them.

This article was updated December 2020.