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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.

A.

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?

A.

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'm worried about how the side effects from my treatment will interfere with the holidays. Any suggestions?

A.

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:

You can find additional information through the National Cancer Institute.

CancerCare’s social workers are here to help you with emotional support and practical help. Call 800-813-HOPE (4673) or email info@cancercare.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?

A.

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?

A.

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)

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.

A.

It makes sense that you don’t feel celebratory—you may be coping with fatigue or pain, and feel uncertain about the future. While your self-expectation may be that you should be smiling and happy at this time of year, the truth is no one can ever be sure how he or she might feel on any given day, and cancer, especially, doesn’t go on holiday. But try not to let your fears of being a “downer” keep you from staying close to the important people in your life. Although people close to you may not know how to approach the subject of cancer, that doesn’t mean they won’t be understanding, or don’t want to help. If you are open to talking with them, you may find that friends and family are more compassionate than you anticipate. While not everyone may be equally helpful, raising the subject of cancer may bring many of your family members closer. Here are some practical tips that could be helpful to you:

Listen to your body. Gauge your physical limits to give yourself time to rest and to manage your energy.

Manage expectations. Remember that you can only do the best you can—if you are not feeling well during a holiday, remind yourself that it is just one day of the year, and that the people you want to be with will care about you just as much even if you don’t feel like celebrating. Give yourself permission to be less than “joyful” all the time.

Communicate. Talk with friends and family members a few days before you see them. Let them know how you are feeling and that you would like their understanding. Since it is likely that not everyone you know will respond the same way, spend a moment to consider how much you want to share and how much a given person will be able to hear.

Plan ahead. Don’t hesitate to ask for what you need. Most often family and friends want to help, but they may not know how, or what to say. They may be relieved if you reach out to them to let them know what will make you feel comfortable. Create a list of tasks or that you can ask others to do for you that you need help with.

Keep in mind what is most important to you. Holiday traditions are important, but that doesn’t mean altering them is bad—if you aren’t able to do exactly what you have done in the past, there is nothing wrong with starting new traditions. And while gifts are nice, it is the sentiment behind them that is most memorable. Simply being with people who care about you is a gift, both to them and to yourself.

For additional tips, please read CancerCare’s fact sheet, Coping with Cancer During the Holidays.

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?

A.

Caregiving is a difficult and an often unappreciated part of living with a person with cancer. It is physically and emotionally draining, if not exhausting, and others may not be aware of the difficulties you are facing. While the holiday season may mean time off from work for some, you may feel that there is little or no time off from your caregiving duties.

Tell your children and grandchildren that you love them as much as ever, and that you would like to do everything that you have done in the past, but that you may not be able to right now. Everyone will feel more comfortable knowing what you are thinking, and will feel reassured that while the way you need to spend your time has changed, your feelings for your family haven’t.

Explain to them what you are not up to doing, and ask them if they could help you with some of the things that you would normally do alone. Giving your adult children (and your grandchildren, to the extent that it is appropriate) new tasks and responsibilities would likely make them feel good about being able to help, and create even stronger bonds among you. You can reassure your grandchildren that although you don’t feel up to doing the things that you have normally done with them in the past, that this doesn’t mean that you won’t do those things again in the future.

If possible, see if there are people close to you who can look after your loved one while you find some rest or diversion, so that you may enjoy holiday activities with others, or just spend some quiet time alone or with a close friend.

For more general tips on how to support yourself as a caregiver, read our fact sheet “Caring Advice for Caregivers: How Can You Help Yourself?

Q. My mom is receiving palliative care currently at home. I really am feeling the pressure with this time of year with expectations (e.g., attending holiday parties and birthdays). While I mean to be attentive, I find myself forgetting to get gifts, or just not feeling like going out. I know my friends ultimately will understand, but is there a way to explain this to them without seeming completely selfish when I just need a few days to myself?

A.

Caregiving is a difficult and an often unappreciated part of living with a person with cancer. It is physically and emotionally draining, if not exhausting, and others may not be aware of the difficulties you are facing. While the holiday season may mean time off from work for some, you may feel that there is little or no time off from your caregiving duties. It stands to reason that you may forget to buy gifts or not feel like going to parties. You aren’t being selfish, you are sensing that you need to take some time for yourself, which is necessary. You are spending both mental and physical energy caring for another person, and that is no small thing.

Communication is so important—without having a direct exchange with your friends it will be difficult to know exactly what their expectations are, or to what extent they understand your situation. One thing to do before you reach out to your friends, is to clarify how you are feeling and what you want to say. Perhaps you can set aside a few minutes to write down your thoughts and feelings about holiday pressures and expectations, and what it is that you would really like the holiday season to be for you. Having done this, you might call your friends—or send what you have written as a letter or email. It is likely that they will be able to empathize. You might begin the conversation by saying how much you appreciate their friendship, that the parties and events sound enjoyable, but that right now you would like their understanding—your responsibilities are too great to let you participate in all their activities. By stating these things simply and directly you are being sincere and won’t come across as selfish or thoughtless.

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?

A.

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.