How to Cope with Holiday Stress When You Have Cancer

Thanksgiving dinner

It's OK if you want to scale down your holiday this year, according to social worker Jackie LaGrassa.

The holidays are stressful enough. Having cancer can make for an especially trying season.

“There are expectations that you’re going to show up and be the same person everyone knows,” says Memorial Sloan Kettering social worker Jackie LaGrassa. “But you can give yourself permission to set new expectations for the holiday.”

A little preparation can help ease some of the pressures you may be feeling this season, Ms. LaGrassa says. She offers the following suggestions.

Practice Self-Care

Ms. LaGrassa’s number-one tip is to be good to yourself during this busy time of year. That means letting yourself off the hook from the activities you might not be up for this go-round, like going all-out on decorations, preparing an elaborate holiday meal, or RSVP’ing yes to every party. “If you don’t take care of yourself, you’re not going to be able to enjoy any of the holiday season,” Ms. LaGrassa says.

Set aside your “should-do” list and instead prioritize the traditions and core values that mean the most to you. It may also help to reframe your expectations of what a successful holiday looks like — even if it’s just for this year. The setup may be different, but the holidays are still a time to gather together and make memories.

Social Work Support
At Memorial Sloan Kettering, social workers play an important role in providing emotional support and guidance to people with cancer, as well as, friends, families, and caregivers. Learn more about our services.
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Communicate Your Needs

It can be difficult to speak up for fear of hurting someone’s feelings. “We hear from many people with cancer and their caregivers that they feel the need to make certain holidays and traditions special,” Ms. LaGrassa says. “As a result, people feel bad disappointing their loved ones if they need to take a break or scale down an event.”

Instead, she suggests, use the holidays as an opportunity to practice being open with one another. And allow yourself some flexibility. You could tell your parents that you won’t be able to decide whether you can attend their annual Hanukkah party until the day of, for example.

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Get Creative

Cancer can rob people of small pleasures, like playing in an annual family football game or enjoying a favorite holiday meal. But you can look for ways to make the most of the day, even if it includes modifications. You might be able to work with a nutritionist to incorporate certain foods into your holiday meals or cheer on your family from the sidelines.

You don’t want to minimize any difficult emotions that come up, however. “There may be moments of sadness or frustration throughout the holidays,” Ms. LaGrassa says, “and it’s important to acknowledge them.”

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Disarm Drama

Come up with a plan for handling situations that make you uneasy, says Ms. LaGrassa. If you know you’re going to be spending time with your opinionated uncle, for instance, have some neutral topics of conversation at the ready, or an exit strategy if needed.

You can also plan your response to a question or statement about your diagnosis or treatment that makes you uncomfortable. The person likely has good intentions but may not know how to express them. “When you’re in these situations, you don’t owe anybody anything,” Ms. LaGrassa adds. “You could say something like, ‘I appreciate so much that you’ve been thinking of me, but I want to focus on having a nice time tonight.’”

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Embrace the Imperfection

Resist the urge to compare your holiday with someone else’s. No one’s festivities are perfect, despite what photos on social media seem to convey. “Let yourself have a messy holiday if you need to,” says Ms. LaGrassa. “Or if Thanksgiving is messy, come up with a plan for Christmas.”

Are you looking for advice about handling the holidays in the midst of cancer? Or do you have tips to help people with cancer and their families through the season? If so, we’d love to hear from you on our private online forum, Connections. Your comments will be kept secure in the MSK Connections community.

Learn more and register here

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Commenting is disabled for this blog post.

My daughter had just finished her chemo and radiation treatments four days before Christmas. We enjoyed a very low key Christmas by spending the day in our pajamas. That is what she wanted. We told my parents not to come as we didn't need the extra stress of guests and just enjoyed our time as a family. Let the cancer patient have a say in the holiday planning. You won't regret it.

I find my 22 year old son really shutting down since Ive been battling stage 3c cancer. It breaks my heart because we were so close before and now some days he barely speaks to me. The holidays just make me think about times before cancer. It worries me that if I pass these will be the memories he will remeber instead of our wondeful life before.

Dear Judy, we’re very sorry to hear that your family is going through this. Best wishes to you for happy holidays.

I got a stage 3c breast cancer dx this year. I have busted my butt working full time and raising my kid through a mastectomy and eight rounds of chemo. I’m playing the card and staying home from a holiday gathering that historically ranges from awkward to outright hostile. I’ve got finite reserves of energy, grace, and patience, and I’ve got to budget these resources when I can.

Thank you for sharing your experiences. Best wishes to you this holiday season.

I was diagnosed with soft tissue sarcoma in May. Two surgeries and 35 radiation treatments later I am continuing to have faith. I will have scans January to see the status of my cancer. I have been getting anxious as of late and the holidays are not the same.

Dear Bob, we’re sending you good thoughts. Thank you for your comment.