The holiday season is full of cheer, but it can also be stressful, especially for cancer patients and their family caregivers. In addition to the extra time spent on shopping, cooking, and socializing, family interactions may bring complex dynamics, old grievances, and varying expectations to the forefront. The pressure to be “festive” can make even the healthiest person weary.
Here are some tips for patients and their families for an enjoyable holiday season.
- Reinvent your rituals.
Rituals are a central part of the holiday season for many families. But, while they can be comforting, they can also create an unrealistic vision for the “perfect” holiday.
Determine what your rituals are really about, and distill them down to their essence. If you usually bake cookies with your children, the value is spending time together. If baking is too tiring, try reading a holiday book as a family instead.
- Ask for help.
Don’t think in terms of what you “should” be doing, but rather what you want to do. It is okay to set limits, say no, and ask for help. If you previously hosted a family gathering, but cannot manage it this year, be honest with yourself and your family. You can ask a family member to host, instead, or invite friends and family over for a potluck. They may already be looking for a way to help, and your request will allow them to do so.
- Practice healthy habits.
It’s easy for anyone to let go during the holidays, but for cancer patients especially, it is vital to eat well, get enough sleep, and exercise. Take walks with your family and friends, and try recipes that are healthy and festive, such as sausage, cranberry, and apple stuffing or healthy holiday cookies.
- Listen to your emotions.
Reflect on what you really want out of the holidays, and communicate that ahead of time to your family and friends so they can adjust their expectations. Share your emotions with loved ones or a professional rather than sweeping them under the rug.
- Prepare for uncomfortable conversations.
If you’re visiting family members you haven’t seen in a while, prepare them ahead of time for any changes in your appearance, such as weight or hair loss. Decide in advance how much information you want to offer, and consider preparing answers to uncomfortable questions they may ask so you aren’t caught off guard.
- Think philanthropically.
Studies have shown that helping others, even in a small way, can help us feel better. Donating winter coats, toys, or food to others in need can improve your mood and strengthen a family bond.
Chances are, whether you are a patient or caregiver, you have been stronger in the past year than you thought you were capable of. Take the end of the year to look back at your challenges, and notice the resilience you have displayed. For more resources or to speak to someone about managing holiday stress, please visit Patient and Family Support Programs.
Julie Salinger is a social worker at Dana-Farber/Brigham and Women’s Cancer Center.