The Holiday Season, Your Mental Health, and Cancer

The Holiday Season, Your Mental Health, and Cancer.

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A woman wearing a head scarf touches foreheads with a young girl in front of a Christmas tree.

The holiday season can be a wonderful celebratory time, but can also be a source of sadness, stress, and frustration. Expectations to spend time, money, and energy can feel daunting. Pressure to do things you may not want to do with people you may not want to see creates stress. Missing loved ones who have died and those with whom you may be estranged is often intensified during this time of year. The holiday season can be a complicated time!

If you are in active cancer treatment or facing a cancer diagnosis, the holidays become even more overwhelming and uncertain. It can be hard to decide the best ways to spend your time while protecting your health and being realistic about what you are able to accomplish.

For some, it is hard to be excited and enjoy the holidays because of worry or because they are feeling sad. Relationships can feel awkward, like people are avoiding you or don’t seem like themselves when they are around you. Family and friends may be unsure how to approach you during this time of year. It can be hard to know what to say and how to talk about your diagnosis. 

Here are some thoughts about how to make the most of your holidays while you care for yourself and your health.

Prioritize your health.

The post-pandemic world feels scary to many in active treatment for cancer. Protecting your health while you have compromised immunity is important. You should speak with your doctor about how likely you are to be immunocompromised and how you can best protect yourself during travel and holiday gatherings. Your doctor can tell you if you need additional vaccines or if you should wear a mask while around others. Your safety should be first. 

Be realistic and plan ahead.

If you are in treatment or recovering from surgery, you may be more tired than usual. Make sure you are realistic when planning out activities. If you can, schedule activities for when you know you are usually feeling your best. Limit the amount of time you plan to spend out and make time for naps, rest, and healthy exercise. Be cautious about the foods you are eating and choose foods you tolerate well. Consult with party hosts ahead of time about the menu or bring food with you to make sure you have something you can eat and enjoy without regrets.

Don’t do all the work.

If you are usually a host during the holidays, consider handing host duties to someone else this year. If that is not possible, make sure you are asking others to help. Consider ordering food or having everyone bring a dish. You can have a semi-homemade holiday with just as many happy memories. Take advantage of online ordering, delivery, and curbside pick-up for food, gifts, and other needs. 

Sadness, frustration, and disappointment are normal.

You may be feeling sad or disappointed you can’t celebrate the holiday the same way you usually do. You may not feel like you’re in “the holiday spirit.” That’s normal! We are all sad sometimes. Living with sadness is hard. You can be sad and grateful and hopeful at the same time. Take it easy on yourself and understand how you are feeling. Find a friend, family member, or therapist you can speak with about your feelings. Some people find prayer or meditation helpful when they have strong, unwelcome emotions.

Start new traditions.

If you are no longer able to do things you used to do, start a new tradition or adapt your tradition. Think of ways to make this holiday special. Some examples: If you can’t walk through a Christmas light display, find one to drive through. If you can’t go out, order fancy delivery food, and watch a holiday movie. Fill a jar with inspirational thoughts, reasons to be grateful or nice things you want to remember. Play board games with loved ones. Make a special holiday ornament or decorate pre-made cookies. 

Focus on being in the moment.

The end of the year sometimes prompts us to review the previous months. If this is a source of distress for you, focus on being in the moment. Practicing mindfulness is a good way to focus on what is happening right now and not thinking about the past or the uncertainty of the future. Focus on each moment of joy and cherish the good things you are experiencing. If you can’t think of joy in the moment, hold a special memory in your heart and reflect on it. Consider every sensation of that happy time and feel gratitude for it. Do some expressive activities: Try journaling about gratitude, draw or paint your feelings, listen to, and reflect on music. Dance, move, pray, or meditate -- whatever you can do to celebrate the now.

Advice for family members and caregivers.

Ask what you can do to help. Cancer patients do not always want to admit they are struggling. Make suggestions about what you can do to help. For example: Would you like it if I brought in the Christmas Decorations and helped you decorate? Would you like me to host a holiday dinner?

Be understanding and patient with your loved one’s abilities, feelings, and lack of holiday spirit. Don’t make unreasonable requests or have expectations about how your loved one should or shouldn’t act or what they should or should not do. Let them guide you. 

Protect your loved one’s health. If you are not feeling well, stay home! If you must be in the home, please wear a good-quality mask, and physically distance yourself as much as possible.

Help make some good memories! Take photos, write notes, and keep as many traditions as possible, even if they are modified. Think of meaningful gestures and gifts for your loved one.

Be a good listener. Listen to what your loved one wants to do and does not want to do. Listen to how they are feeling, to their food preferences, and to everything that isn’t being said. 

Show love. Every day. Wishing you the best of the season and the strength of kindness and gratitude.

Are you in need of cancer care?

The speclialists at MedStar Health are here to help.

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