Dealing with Cancer Around the Holidays

Dealing with Cancer Around the Holidays

Reviewed by Jasper Clinical Board

Last updated 12/21/21

The holidays are peak-everything: so much joy! So much stress! So much eating! For many people, the holidays also mean lots of family time, traveling, and gift-giving. Holiday overwhelm hits nearly everyone in one way or another, and that’s under regular circumstances. When you add living with cancer to the mix (plus the Covid pandemic, with which cancer patients need to take extra caution), it’s likely that there will be some moments of fatigue, stress, sadness, and uncertainty.
If this is your first holiday season since your diagnosis, know that things will probably feel different this year, and that’s okay. There may be a sense of loss over not being able to participate in family traditions (like traveling or spending extensive time socializing), and about not feeling like yourself. If you’re a pro at navigating treatment during family holidays, consider what’s felt good and what’s been challenging in the past to uncover your roadmap for planning out this year’s celebrations. 
As with most things, a little forethought goes a long way when it comes to dealing with cancer around the holidays, so here we’ll delve into a few key areas: fielding family questions, self-care, travel, and managing energy and expectations. 
Fielding family questions
For many families, the winter holidays are the time when extended relatives gather together, and often it’s the only time this happens all year. There’s a ton of catching up and there can be a disconnect between how entitled to intimate information family members feel, and the amount of vulnerability you actually have available for a room full of aunties and in-laws. Intrusive questions and unsolicited advice can be par for the course. Usually, this is just irritating, but when you’re going through cancer treatment, it can be truly upsetting, and can put you in the difficult position of having to share details that feel personal or that you’d rather not dwell on over holiday dinner. 
To handle this situation, we offer you two tools that can save the day (and your sanity): boundaries and deflection. To practice setting and holding boundaries around how much of your cancer journey is on the table, so to speak, for discussion, first decide ahead of time what you are and are not comfortable talking about. This can be anything from “no convos about my cancer at all” to “happy to answer basic questions about my treatment, but nothing more in-depth”—it’s about honoring your own personal comfort level. Next, practice a boundary-setting phrase. “I’m not comfortable talking about that” or “I’d rather not discuss that (right now), thanks” are great, clear options. Last, give yourself a pep talk before arriving at your get-together, reminding yourself that your priority must be taking care of yourself, and it’s okay if other people have feelings about your boundaries. It’s only your job to set and hold them, not to manage other people’s feelings about them. 
Deflection is another super-effective tool for fielding family questions, and it can be used in tandem with boundary-setting. If someone is asking you a question you’d rather not answer, you can set your boundary and then immediately follow up by asking them a question—perhaps one that you know they’ll have a lot to say about. Once you get the focus shifted from yourself, you can enjoy a well-earned breather from being on the receiving end of uncomfortable inquiries. 
For the holidays, leaning on your self-care practices (or starting some new ones) can have a huge impact on how you feel, physically and mentally. Sleep, movement, nutrition, hydration, spiritual wellness, and emotional health are all areas in which to consider giving yourself some extra love this season. 
Try to think about tiny changes (rather than potentially-tiring big projects), like implementing a bedtime to protect restorative sleep, adding a short meditation or gentle yoga session before bed, or increasing your water intake by just one glass per day. Consider where you feel depleted, and how to fill that particular cup up. 
Unlike regular non-holiday times, in which you may be thinking about wellness practices in terms of your ongoing lifestyle, give yourself holiday permission to get through the days however you can, one day at a time. You don’t have to maintain any of the habits you dip into here—you can lean on them as short-term solutions for high-key times, and if that means you watch three hours of tv after one hour of socializing because you just need the zone out, let that be okay. 
Travel, energy management, and expectations
Many families travel for the holidays, and whether your relatives are a drive or a flight away, it’s important to realistically assess your bandwidth for making a journey. First, consider the practical realities of your physical condition. If you’re in the trenches of chemo and having a lot of nausea, this might not be the year to get on a plane. If you’re too weak to drive for the length of time it would take to get to your gathering, perhaps consider inviting someone to join you and do the driving. 
COVID is another concern—for everyone, but particularly for people with cancer, whose immunity is likely less robust than it should be. Talk to your doctor in advance about their recommendations for what level of exposure is safe for you, and what testing protocols they recommend for you and your family. 
Knowing how much bandwidth you’re likely to have—for traveling, for socializing, for being on your feet or out of your own home—is the key to a manageable holiday experience, and feel free to err on the side of taking it easy. Adjusting your own expectations of yourself, and then cluing your family into what’s realistic these days, can help you make a plan for how to show up and enjoy the holiday spirit without feeling frustrated or too spent. Know that this year, you’ll have a new normal, and that it isn’t fair to ask yourself to keep up with all the bustling around that you typically do. 
 Giving yourself holiday grace
As you navigate this holiday season, do your best to give yourself some grace and ask for help whenever you can. It’s okay if you don’t get presents together this year, or if someone else cooks your family’s traditional dinner. It’s okay if you can’t make a journey, you have to go home early, or you need to go lie down. The most important thing (and the best gift you can give your loved ones) is to take good care of yourself and let yourself enjoy the moments that do feel good. Happy holidays from all of us at Jasper. 

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