For Any Cancer Diagnosis
Q. I've been diagnosed with advanced cancer. I have five children and feel they don’t want me around for Christmas, because it makes them sad, and they don’t have the time for both me and their own families. I can’t be alone. I don’t know what to do to or what to say to them.
I am very sorry to hear that you are facing these challenges this holiday season. While you feel that your children are not wanting to have you with them, you don’t say whether you have spoken with them about your concerns. It may be that they are unsure of how you are feeling or what your expectations might be concerning Christmas. If you are in need of any special assistance or equipment to facilitate spending time with them, they may not feel prepared to manage those needs. The key may be to open up a discussion with them to talk about your preferences for being with family that day and to address the practical considerations that would make it possible.
As difficult as it is to cope with cancer during the holidays, it is also possible to be joyful. For many, the idea that you can feel both sad and joyful is an unusual concept. While your family may experience feelings of sadness associated with the many issues related to your cancer, there can also be joyfulness when spending time together with those who mean so much and creating memories of a special day. The challenge can be in maintaining an awareness of the pleasures that are available in the midst of a very difficult time.
Many people face challenges like yours during the holiday season. It might be helpful for you to speak with a CancerCare social worker about your unique circumstances, so please call us at 1-800-813-HOPE (4673). We’ve also compiled suggestions that might be helpful in our fact sheet, Coping With Cancer During the Holidays.
Q. Three weeks before the holidays, my father was diagnosed with advanced cancer. Hospice care has started but I find it isn’t enough and other family members who live in town really don’t offer help. Some days seem too overwhelming - how do I focus on everyday activities?
Depending on your particular family and faith traditions, there can be a lot of expectations at this time of year, many of them focused around finding joy in the season. When illness or grief interrupts those expectations, it can be difficult to manage.
Be kind to yourself during this time, and consider what is truly important to you now. That can require you to adjust your expectations about everything from shopping to housecleaning. Make a list of those things that you truly enjoy and decide which of those traditions you would like to retain. Give yourself permission to “pass“ on those traditions that generate stress or involve a good amount of effort
This may also be a time that you can ask others to provide additional support. This can include a conversation with the hospice social worker concerning what other services may be available. You might use the services of a hospice volunteer or have the ability to engage additional home care supports on your own.
While it would be ideal for family and friends to volunteer their help, it may be necessary to ask them. Consider whether there are specific tasks that you can ask others to perform which can provide you a break from the day-to-day demands of care giving. Is there someone who can stay for a few hours, offer to go to the market, or bring your father to a scheduled appointment? Many times family and friends would like to help but are at a loss as to how to be helpful without being disruptive to routines.
An additional resource you might find helpful is our Connect Education Workshop, Coping with a Loved One’s Cancer During the Holidays.
Q. I was diagnosed with cancer a few months ago and I don't feel much like celebrating the holidays. I'm worried I'll be a downer for my family and I'm not sure how to act.
Adjusting to the reality of a cancer diagnosis and the changes to your life takes time and energy. It makes sense that you don’t feel like celebrating. You’re probably experiencing many feelings: some negative, such as uncertainty about the future, and also some positive, such as gratitude for the love and support of family and friends. It’s okay to not feel up to celebrating, but you should try as much as you can to not let your fears about being a “downer” keep you from staying connected with the important people in your life. Here are some practical tips that could be helpful to you:
- Keep your expectations realistic. Know your physical limitations and give yourself extra time to rest as needed; anticipate that strong emotions will hit you unexpectedly, and give yourself permission to be less than “joyful” all the time.
- Delegate — let others help! Create a list of tasks you can ask others to take on for you accomplishes two things: it helps distribute responsibilities in a more manageable way, and people feel more comfortable when given something specific to do to help.
- Save your energy for the important stuff. In other words, prioritize and pace yourself. If you need to turn in early, or aren’t able to eat in your accustomed way, just let people know. Everything doesn’t have to be done all at once: enjoy what you can now, and look forward to enjoying more in the future. Maintaining holiday traditions is important, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be altered or replaced with new ones.
- Share your feelings with others. Don’t be afraid to express your feelings and concerns to family and friends. But consider in advance how much you feel comfortable sharing, and how much the other person may be able to hear. These are judgment calls, and not easy to make, but remember that the goal is not so much about imparting information, as it is supporting and enriching relationships.
For additional tips, please read CancerCare’s fact sheet, Coping with Cancer During the Holidays.
Another source of information is available from the American Cancer Society.
Q. As caregiver for my husband, I have no interest in the holidays. I know this is a disappointment to our adult children and our young grandchildren don't understand why I just don't care about shopping, etc. What can I say to them to tell them I love them but I am just so sad, other than just that?
I don’t know how things stand right now with your husband’s treatment and the extent of your caretaking duties, but it may be that you’re feeling “burnt out.” Even though it’s the holiday season, it’s hard to feel like you can take “time off” from cancer. I wonder if your lack of interest in shopping and the trappings of Christmas is a signal that you need to replenish yourself physically, emotionally and spiritually. My suggestions for you are not so different from the ones I gave previously to patients coping with the holidays: Keep expectations realistic; Let others help, even if you’re still the principal organizer of holiday activities; Set priorities and pace yourself; and Share your feelings with others.
Try not to dwell only on the cancer: remember that the meaning of the holidays is in certain ways already expressed through the care you are giving. And although you’re struggling with feelings of sadness and loss, you are still permitted to enjoy the gifts of the present: to celebrate not only a grand religious tradition, but also the moments of joy and gratitude for being with the people you love.
For more general tips on how to support yourself as a caregiver, see the previous feature on caregiving in the Ask CancerCare archive, with links to other resources and publications, or our Fact Sheet, “Caring Advice for Caregivers: How Can You Help Yourself?”
Q. I'm worried about how the side effects from my treatment will interfere with the holidays. Any suggestions?
People view the holidays as a time to celebrate and connect with family and friends. However, the season can be stressful if you are living with cancer and trying to manage treatment side effects such as fatigue, weight loss or gain, nausea or pain.
Fortunately, doctors have many ways to reduce and even prevent side effects. At CancerCare, we often use the word “coping” to describe how people deal with cancer. People sometimes mistakenly think that coping means just living with a problem, whether you like it or not. But coping actually means managing a problem and finding a new way to take control of it.
You can maximize your enjoyment of the holidays by letting your health care team know now about your holiday plans and ask for their help in taking control of treatment side effects. Make an appointment with your doctor to discuss your concerns and ask for guidance regarding holiday meals, travel, and conserving your energy, as well as rescheduling your treatments, if possible, so that any resulting side effects will not occur on during the holidays.
CancerCare offers publications offering additional information so that you can better manage your treatment side effects and enjoy the holiday season:
- Coping with Cancer During the Holidays
- Understanding and Managing Chemotherapy Side Effects
- Coping with Cancer: Tools to Help You Live
You can find additional information about managing treatment side effects through the National Cancer Institute.
CancerCare’s social workers are here to help you with emotional support and practical help. Call 1-800-813-HOPE (4673) or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Q. I am a 4 year survivor of prostate cancer, my sister just lost her 11-month ordeal with pancreatic cancer. She was told she had cancer almost 20 years after losing our mother, so holidays are rough for me and the rest of the family. Any thoughts as to how to handle this?
I am very sorry for the recent loss of your sister and the trying times that you and your family now face, especially as the holidays approach. Likely, there is a “legacy of loss” that has become part of your family’s experience during this time of year, which may add to the grief you are now experiencing. The struggle to try to maintain some degree of normalcy during a very confusing and difficult time is profound, and I’m glad you are reaching out for guidance.
I want to assure you that it is possible to get through this time in a way that feels “right” for you individually and also as a family. There are no rules here; listening to yourselves and acknowledging your limits will be very important as you approach the weeks ahead. Consider each commitment you make and ask yourself honestly, “Is this something I can realistically take on right now?” You are carrying a heavy load and taking time to pay attention to your feelings will help you to make choices that will honor your grief and spend time together as a family.
This time can also be an opportunity for you to come together as a family in very meaningful ways. Perhaps you will decide to avoid the holiday pressures, and instead simply spend your time in each other’s company. It will be important to open up a dialogue with your family about their feelings, thoughts, and ideas as to how they would like to spend the holidays while remembering your mother and sister. Be honest and gentle with yourselves and with each other—this will help to facilitate communication and understanding and find the right balance.
For more information that might be helpful, please view Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center’s video, Coping With Grief During the Holidays.
Please know that you are not alone and if you or any of your family members would like some additional support, please call our Hopeline at 800-813-4673. Our Hopeline is answered by CancerCare professional oncology social workers who are here to help and guide you. I hope you and your family will find some comfort during this difficult time.
Q. This is a hard time of year for us as my wife has cancer. Would you recommend any books about talking to and doing the best for our kids?
When coping with a cancer diagnosis, families often experience a variety of changes and adjustments during the holidays and other significant events. Discussing and preparing for these changes with your children can open up dialogue, elicit questions and help you to understand what your child is feeling. Although certain rituals or customs may change, it can also be helpful to honor old traditions as a way of maintaining a sense of normalcy for your children. Remember that cancer doesn’t have to be the focus of the holidays, and you have discretion over how much room cancer gets during your celebration.
Books can be helpful tools or supplements to reinforce language and ideas to help children cope with a parent’s cancer diagnosis, but should not replace a conversation. The holidays may be an opportunity to have such discussions, as you are likely joining together as a family to reflect on the past year and to make plans for the year ahead.
When selecting literature to help you talk to your children, consider your child’s age, developmental stage and maturity level. Being honest allows children of any age an important opportunity to ask questions and express how they feel. You may not have all the answers, but you can remind your child that you will always be available for them to ask.
For more information about coping with the holidays and communicating with children about cancer, read CancerCare’s Coping with Cancer During the Holidays and Helping Children When a Family Member Has Cancer, or review the following books to help you navigate these conversations:
- How to Help Children Through a Parent’s Serious Illness by Kathleen McCue and Ron Bonn (St. Martin’s Press: 1994)
- Helping your Children Cope with your Cancer by Peter Vandernoot (Hatherleigh Press: 2006)
- When a Parent Has Cancer : A Guide to Caring for Your Children by Wendy Schlessel Harpham, MD (Harper Collins: 2004)
For Breast Cancer
Q. My wife is receiving chemotherapy for breast cancer and I know the holidays will be hard. Do you have any suggestions as to what I can do to help her?
The holidays often represent a time of celebration and connecting with loved ones; coping with cancer treatment during this time can be stressful. Your wife may be experiencing side effects that make it hard to focus on the holidays alone, but there are many things that you can do to help her cope with the stress of treatment and to enjoy this holiday season. You can help your wife significantly by paying attention to both her physical and emotional needs, as well as your own.
Talk to your wife about how she wants to spend the holidays. You can also support her as she makes decisions about what activities she can tolerate this year. Managing expectations is an important part of coping with a cancer diagnosis, so consider what traditions she may need to take a pass on this year. Establishing new holiday traditions with close family and friends may allow her to feel more satisfied and supported.
Having an open conversation with her medical team about holiday plans can help provide guidance and support in managing side effects appropriately. They may be able to make dietary suggestions, offer advice on pain management, or make a more flexible treatment schedule if possible. This may help in keeping her focused on the meaning of the holidays rather than uncomfortable side effects.
Also, take good care of yourself this holiday season. As a caregiver, it is important that you think about your needs as well. Talk to friends, go for a walk, or spend alone time with your wife. Considering your own feelings will help to maximize the support you are able to offer your wife.
CancerCare offers publications to help you and your family cope with the holidays during cancer treatment:
You can also listen to CancerCare’s Connect Education Workshops that address coping with cancer during the holidays.
CancerCare’s professional oncology social workers can provide emotional and practical support to further help you and your family find ways of coping. Please call us at 800-813-4673 for support and practical help.