If you have cancer or are caring for a loved one with the disease, seasonal wishes such as “Merry Christmas” and “Happy Holidays” may ring as hollow as an empty Salvation Army kettle. Anxiety, stress, grief–even anger–are normal feelings accompanying a cancer diagnosis, and listening to Christmas carols or remembering more carefree holiday seasons from years past may not help things.
“The holidays are painted as an especially joyful time, yet when you're feeling a set of emotions that doesn’t seem to fit this ideal picture, the contrast between what you’re feeling and the merriment around you can leave you feeling disconnected,” says Memorial Sloan Kettering clinical psychologist Wendy Lichtenthal, who specializes in counseling breast cancer patients during all stages of their disease and treatment. She also focuses on helping caregivers of cancer patients who are coping with the loss of a loved one as Director of the Bereavement Clinic.
You might even feel you're supposed to savor every moment with family and friends, but your thoughts aren't cooperating, Dr. Lichtenthal notes.
“People tell themselves, ‘I need to be more in the moment and enjoy this time,’” she says, “but then they find they aren’t really up for it, or perhaps scary thoughts intrude, leaving them feeling frustrated and a sense of guilt. Whenever possible, try not to feel badly about feeling badly—give yourself permission to feel whatever it is you’re feeling.”
How much a cancer diagnosis will affect your holiday celebrations will depend on your particular diagnosis and stage of treatment. But to cope with difficult emotions that may arise in a situation that so often feels beyond your control, Dr. Lichtenthal says it can be helpful to focus on what you do have control over. She offers the following tips:
The holidays can mean a flurry of activity–shopping, cooking, decorating and entertaining. Put your energy, which may be a precious resource right now, toward those activities or traditions that mean the most to you.
It can help to make a list, writing down what you normally do, what you feel you should do, and the things you genuinely want to do because they give you a sense of satisfaction or meaning. Try to focus on the “want to dos.”
What's most important is unique to you.
There is no universal prescription for coping with the holidays; what is important to one person may be less so to another. Maybe, for example, holiday shopping is a chore and you're fine with telling your relatives you can't do it this year. Or maybe you love giving gifts and you want to keep doing it, just like always.
In that case, shop if you can, or perhaps come up with a list and either order online or ask others to get the items for you. Doing things that were important to you before the diagnosis can help you feel like yourself and can help keep your spirits up.
Accept offers of help.
If friends, relatives, or neighbors ask if there's anything they can do, suggest something specific. You might wish they could read your mind and know what would be most helpful without you having to ask, but they probably won't.
Tell them you'd appreciate it if they would pick up your Christmas tree or drop off a batch of their famous chicken soup. Giving is a theme of the season, and those who care about you will cherish the opportunity to be there for you.
Keep traditions, even while breaking them (a bit).
The best traditions help us feel connected to the people we care about. But it’s OK to change traditions to accommodate your energy level, treatment schedule, caregiving responsibilities, and so on.
Maybe you usually host a big holiday dinner. Turn it into a potluck or ask someone else to host so you can still be together.
Manage family members' expectations.
They may not understand how fatigued you feel, or they may be experiencing their own distress. Try to be clear about your limits.
That sounds good, right? Everyone knows that family can be, well, family. If that conversation is going to cause you even more stress, then you may decide it's better for you to keep the peace and agree to some of those “should dos.”
Just make sure you're not taking on too much and you're still taking care of yourself.
Leave your options open.
The cancer experience can sometimes feel like a rollercoaster. Some days you may feel energetic; others you may not feel up to doing much at all. Allow yourself to decide at the last minute if you'll attend a party or if you want visitors.
Try to spend time with people who are good for you.
That person may be a compassionate listener, or a chatterbox who will distract you by talking about everything but cancer. You know what you need. Reach out to those people.
Don’t go it alone.
If you're struggling, reach out for professional help. Memorial Sloan Kettering social workers, psychologists, psychiatrists, and chaplains are here to help cancer patients and their families navigate emotionally trying times.