Christmas is traditionally a time of celebration, feasting on festive foods and drinks and gathering with family and friends. However, if you have cancer, this may also be a time of overwhelming emotions, exhaustion, or physical discomfort. Add in concerns about the current coronavirus pandemic, and you’ve got a recipe for a stressful holiday. “As our second COVID Christmas is fast approaching and with our world so desperately wanting to return to normal comes a lot of holiday festivities, says Marissa Holzer, who has been living with metastatic breast cancer since 2014. “Some of these parties and gatherings may bring unnecessary stress and anxiety, even during normal times, or they may make an immunocompromised individual feel unsafe.”
Let’s take a look at some ways we might reduce the stress of the festive season.
1. Plan Ahead
Consider what aspects of Christmas may be difficult for you, and plan ahead of time for what will help you cope. You may find it useful to write a list. For example, keep snacks, hand sanitizer, and masks in your bag when traveling away from home.
2. Listen to Holiday Music
This tip comes from two-time breast cancer survivor, Terri Coutee, who finds listening to holiday music lifts her spirits. “It can be in the form of quiet instrumental when I am feeling peaceful and reading or resting,” she explains. “When I am cooking or decorating I might put on a favorite artist with a little jazz or swing to it and dance a bit while preparing for the holidays.
3. Ask for Help
The run-up to Christmas is a hectic time filled with food shopping, gift wrapping, decorating, and extra household jobs. Now is the time to call on the assistance of those who offered to help when you were first diagnosed. Reach out to them and ask for practical help with Christmas chores. Also, do as much of your grocery and gift shopping online as possible.
4. Schedule Rest Time
Don’t expect to be able to do what you could do before cancer. Know your limits and don’t expect too much of yourself. You may find it helpful to think of your energy reserves as your ‘energy bank’. Whenever you do an activity you make a withdrawal. And when you rest you make a deposit. It’s important to balance withdrawals with deposits. If you keep doing too much whenever you feel like you have energy, you’ll run out completely and not have any reserves left for the things that are important.
Cathy Leman, who works with post-treatment survivors of hormone-positive breast cancer, says that “one thing that helps my clients cope during the holidays is being deliberate in creating space for themselves; ideally before they start their day. As little as ten minutes devoted to setting an intention, doing deep breathing or journaling can help you feel grounded and balanced.”
5. Adjust Your Expectations
Arising out of the previous tip, Jennifer Douglas, who was diagnosed with DCIS, suggests keeping expectations flexible. “Since our energy fluctuates so much during and after treatment it can be really difficult to know how much to put on one day,” she explains. “I found that giving myself grace to do a lot, or a little, with regards to holiday preparations, enabled me to feel more at peace. Some days I felt good and could do a lot, and other days I didn’t have the energy. Either way, I listened to my body and did what I could. Having flexible expectations of myself helped me get through the busy season while preserving my precious energy.”
6. Set Firm Boundaries
When you visit with friends and family the subject of your diagnosis and treatment may come up at some point. It’s perfectly acceptable to tell someone that you don’t want to talk about cancer if you don’t. It can be helpful to plan ahead of time how you will respond to these questions.
Rod Ritchie who was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2014 (followed in 2016 with a diagnosis of prostate cancer), steers clear of cancer conversations as much as he can. “Because I don’t want to turn a Christmas party into a pity party, I don’t mention the ‘C word’ unless it comes up for discussion,” he says. “ It doesn’t hurt me to have a day off the topic as well!”
7. Feel What You Feel
Christmas is a time of high expectations and the reality of our experience doesn’t always match these expectations. Tell yourself that’s ok. Let yourself feel whatever it is that you are feeling. Even if how you feel doesn’t correspond to what others expect, your feelings are still real and valid.
Breast cancer survivor, Nancy Stordahl, still grieves the death of her mother from breast cancer and finds Christmas can be a challenging time. “There is nothing wrong with honoring your grief by feeling it,” she says. “No one should feel guilty about grieving during the holidays or during any time of year, for that matter.”
Prostate cancer survivor, Gogs Gagnon, who lost his sister to ovarian cancer says he finds “comfort in sharing stories at family gatherings. Reliving my favorite memories and allowing myself to cry without fear of judgment is incredibly healing and therapeutic.”
8. Prioritize What is Best For You
You get to decide the kind of Christmas you want. It’s ok to say no to certain things, such as not visiting friends or family. Discuss your needs with friends and family, but remember that it’s ok to prioritize what’s best for you, even if others don’t seem to understand. In the words of Marissa, “My motto this season: If it doesn’t bring peace, joy and love to your heart it is absolutely okay to say no.”
My wish for you this holiday season is that it will be a time filled with an abundance of peace, joy and love, and that the new year will bring good health and happiness to us all.
A Stanford Medicine X e-Patient scholar, Marie Ennis O’Connor is an internationally recognized keynote speaker, writer, and consultant on global trends in patient engagement, digital health and participatory medicine. Marie’s work is informed by her passion for embedding the patient voice at the heart of healthcare values. She writes about the experience of transitioning from breast cancer patient to advocate on her award-winning blog Journeying Beyond Breast Cancer.