Why Is Surviving the Holidays Challenging With Cancer?
The holiday season is a magical and joyous time of the year! The months of November and December are full of family, fellowship, food and fun! It’s a very special time of the year for deeper, more frequent connection with the people we love, honoring and enjoying old family traditions, while also creating new ones. But, when cancer intrudes on your life and threatens to rob the season of its joy; surviving the holidays can be difficult.
Holiday time can be more fearful than fun and feel more stressful and sadder than celebratory. The holidays can still be a special time of love and togetherness in spite of a cancer diagnosis; but it requires the caregivers and the cancer patient to shift gears and be willing to make some changes and accommodations to meet the needs of the new “normal.” Surviving the holidays with cancer may look and feel differently this year, but it can still be a time full of magic and meaning!
New “Normal” As a Result of Cancer
You don’t have to be part of the cancer community to be familiar with the phrase “new normal.” You’ve heard it a million times in reference to life changes- moving, having a baby, getting divorced, being laid off or receiving a cancer diagnosis. It’s a new way of life following a life altering event.
If I’m honest, I have to fight the urge to truly loathe this phrase. But as much as I dislike it, there is a lot of truth in it. I have come to realize it’s much more of a perspective shift than a “feeling.”
When my mom was diagnosed with Glioblastoma brain cancer nothing about our life felt “normal.” Receiving that diagnosis put our life on the fast track. Unfortunately, this form of brain cancer does not give families the luxury of time. Therefore, we felt the desire, urgency (and pressure) to make every single moment count, especially during the holiday season.
No one is guaranteed tomorrow. But, the devastating realities of GBM make future moments feel even more uncertain. It was a real possibility that we would not have the opportunity to celebrate another Thanksgiving or Christmas together again on this side of heaven.
So, how do we embrace the upcoming holiday season and fill it with meaning and memories while taking cancer into consideration?
Surviving the Holidays With Cancer
Give Yourself Permission to Experience Your True Feelings
Cancer affects every aspect of your life. It is more than reasonable to experience feelings of sadness, discomfort, overwhelm and even physical, spiritual, and mental pain. Instead of trying to ignore or push aside these feelings, give yourself and your loved ones permission to acknowledge them and fully experience them. Make no excuses for the way you feel. Be honest with yourself and others about your emotions and extend yourself and your loved ones GRACE. The person with cancer and the entire family unit is affected by a cancer diagnosis. Everyone experiences the news and the journey differently. Honor one another by accepting the emotions for what they are, don’t try to change them. Seek to understand and be understood. Emotions are complex and can be further complicated by holidays and milestone events.
Know Your Limitations/Set Boundaries
The holidays are typically a busy and chaotic time of the year. There is always somewhere to go, something to do or someone to see. Cancer and its treatments are physically draining and mentally exhausting. As a family, acknowledge where you are in your cancer journey and treatment and realistically decide what you can and cannot do. Learning to say “no” is not easy but it is a necessity in surviving the holidays with cancer. Remember how important proper rest is for the person with cancer. Be mindful and don’t fall prey to over commitment.
It is important to acknowledge that things are not the same as they were before cancer. It does not mean that things cannot still be great but it’s unrealistic to believe that life is the same. Therefore, the caregiver and the loved one with cancer must realistically look at the holidays with fresh eyes and with new perspective. What you were once able to do during the holidays may not be what you can handle this year.
Many families have annual holiday traditions that they hold close to their hearts and look forward to with anticipation every year! Our family loved going to chop down our own Christmas tree every year! We would tromp through the forest, play in the snow, sing Christmas carols and feast on homemade chicken noodle soup and apple pie. Those were the moments that Christmas was made of. Cancer does not have to steal all the magical moments out of the holidays. You might just have to alter the current traditions or embrace the opportunity to create new ones. Use this time to be creative and think of new ways to celebrate the Christmas season that may accommodate the needs of the current circumstances.
It is important that caregivers and cancer patients communicate their feelings with one another and with close friends and family members. Unfortunately, no one can read your mind. They might assume they know how you are feeling…but, we all know what happens when we ASSUME. Everyone will have a more enjoyable holiday when they know what the needs, feelings and expectations are upfront and then plan accordingly.
Planning holiday celebrations ahead of time and with cancer in mind is something we have found to be beneficial in surviving the holidays with cancer. Cancer adds a new layer to planning festivities (and life) so it’s important to plan and plan early. Remember to take meal planning into special consideration. When someone is receiving cancer treatments, there are usually food sensitivities, aversions and restrictions to consider. Involve your loved one in the meal planning discussions.
Aside from the menu, take some time to think through any travel plans or traveling logistics. Be sure to consult with the oncologist prior to making any travel plans to be sure you understand the restrictions (if any) and take the time to inquire about holiday service hours, on call procedures and emergency contacts that might be necessary during the holidays. If air travel is going to be a part of your holiday plans, consider purchasing travel insurance. In addition, call the airlines ahead of time and discuss any special accommodations that might be necessary (such as wheelchair assistance or a travel buddy) to make your loved one more comfortable, confident and will make the overall experience easier and more enjoyable.
Surviving the Holidays is Easier When You Ask for Help
If you are anything like me, sometimes I find it difficult to ask for help. I know there are many people in my inner circle who are ready and willing to step up and meet a need, but they are counting on me to “make the ask.” Trust me, I know it’s hard and even uncomfortable sometimes, asking for help (especially during a time of the year where EVERYONE is busy). But, my best suggestion to you is to put your pride aside, lay down your superwoman “I can do it all” cape and humbly ask for help.
Cancer is unpredictable and so are its side effects. One day you might feel like taking on the world and everyone in it and then out of nowhere, BAM! Things change. Allow yourself and your family the flexibility to change plans and adopt a more “go with the flow” attitude this holiday season. Consider making less long-term commitments and enjoy a more spontaneous holiday attitude. This built in flexibility may alleviate some pressure and holiday overwhelm.
Simplicity Makes Surviving the Holidays a Little Bit Easier
The holiday season tends to logistically blow up and snow ball into a “more is better” mentality. This holiday season consider keeping things meaningful and fun, yet more simple. Think of ways to simplify your holiday planning and processes. Whether it’s the meal plan, the gifts or the festive décor, brain storm ways to make life easier for you and your loved one. Simplification will make surviving the holidays easier.
Pay Attention to Your Words
During the holidays, you may see family and friends that you haven’t seen in a long time. Prepare yourself ahead of time for these conversations. People are people, and someone is going to make a stupid comment related to cancer, the affects that its having or what you (or your loved one) should do to treat it. Try to give others the benefit of the doubt and realize that most people are speaking out of love and are well intentioned with their words and platitudes. Cancer makes people uncomfortable and many are not sure exactly what to say. Extend grace. Try to keep conversations focused on the person, not the disease or the affects that it is having. People with cancer or family members affected by cancer, like to be asked how they are doing, however, “normal” conversation is also welcomed and strongly encouraged!
Meaningful time/Gift of Presence
When you or a loved one is affected by cancer, life seems to shrink inward and perspective on what is really important in life becomes laser focused. Exchanging gifts is an exciting holiday tradition but never underestimate the gift of your time and your presence…those truly are the priceless gifts of the season.
Extend Yourself Grace
There is no “how to cancer guide” that will help you and your loved one navigate this cancer journey perfectly. No one family walks through this season in the same way. Be kind to yourselves. Accept the fact that things may not be like they used to be, but they can still be full of joy and beautiful memories.
Surviving the Holiday With Cancer is Possible
Cancer can and will change your life. However, the effects are not always negative. Cancer brings life changing perspective, more meaningful connection and BIG LOVE. It can make your holiday season look and feel differently but it can be a blessing to your family. Embrace the holiday season and commit to making the moments meaningful and magical yet look for ways to adjust and simplify to meet the new needs of your family.