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With some adjustments, holidays and special occasions can be good times to remember.

Holidays and special occasions are meant to be joyful times that create good memories. But for the person whose life has been affected by cancer, a more complex mix of emotions is to be expected. Caregivers and their loved ones with cancer may feel out of step, worried or sad as special occasions approach, and it may be especially challenging to keep up with event preparations and responsibilities. It is common to wonder how to enjoy a festive gathering when your loved one is suddenly facing a cancer diagnosis or dealing with significant treatment side effects.

But with some adjustments, holidays and special occasions can still provide opportunities to make wonderful memories. This booklet offers some practical coping tips.

Adjusting Your Expectations

Preparing for holidays can be the perfect time to experiment with new roles and discover strengths within your social circle. The key is to aim for honest communication among all involved. In this way, you can work towards creating realistic plans that do not place undue strain on you or your loved one with cancer.

Some of the common challenges caregivers face during special occasions include:

  • Feeling guilty about not performing the usual tasks everyone has come to expect
  • Hesitating to ask for help with preparations
  • Saying “no” to additional responsibilities that may come up during special occasions
  • Coping with lack of sleep and fatigue
  • Feeling pressure to hide any sadness or worry

The following tips can help:

Adjust your expectations. This year, you may need to rethink how many social events to attend or presents to buy. Ask yourself if the event is too strenuous for you at this time. Changing or canceling a long-held family tradition can feel extreme, but it is also important to do what is best for you and preserve your ability to care for your loved one. For example, if you have always had a big New Year’s Eve dinner at your home, think about whether the planning, grocery shopping, cooking and cleaning are too much. If you do not wish to forego the event entirely, consider inviting fewer people, asking friends or family to share hosting duties, or organizing a potluck-style dinner instead. On the other hand, if hosting the event will not place too much stress on your time, finances or emotional well-being, this could be a great opportunity to feel “normal” during a difficult and uncertain time. Only you can know what is best for you and your situation.

Speak to your health care team about the special event. Doctors and other health care providers may have helpful suggestions for you and your loved one. They may also be able to move appointments, so that your special occasion can be celebrated as scheduled, if timing is important. As an example, one man’s health care team was able to reschedule his surgery so that the anniversary cruise he had long planned with his wife could still take place around the appropriate date.

Talk to your loved ones about trading or sharing responsibilities.. For example, if your home has traditionally been the gathering spot during special occasions, consider moving the festivities to another place. The new spot could be the home of another family member or friend, or a restaurant. Loved ones may also be able to help by grocery shopping or cleaning on your behalf.

Establish new traditions. If you have always done the baking or cooking, for example, you might ask someone else to help. Consider ordering the entire meal from a restaurant or caterer. Another option would be to ask loved ones to bring special items

Communicate with your loved one about what the special occasion means to them. For example, a birthday or holiday may have a new or different meaning for someone who is going through treatment. You may want to ask your loved one how he or she would like to celebrate the upcoming special occasion.

Enjoy special moments. Rather than dwelling on the way special occasions used to be, try to focus instead on new traditions that have been established. Stay flexible and be kind to yourself and your family.

Caring for the Caregiver

Frequently, caregivers do not have enough time for themselves. Attending to the needs of a loved one with cancer can be demanding and unpredictable. It is common for caregivers to feel overextended and pulled in many different directions. Wanting time to recharge is not only understandable, it is a crucial part of taking care of yourself. Aim to schedule breaks when possible — spend the time doing something you enjoy, such as reading, listening to music, jogging, meditating, soaking in a hot bath, watching television, getting lost in a video game or just taking a nap. Think of relaxation as planned time-outs. You may need to make a contract with yourself to set aside an hour or two a week or perhaps just 20 minutes a day to relax. Remember that taking care of yourself helps you give your loved one the best care possible.

Acknowledge your feelings. It is perfectly normal for caregivers to experience feelings of loss or sadness over how cancer has changed a special occasion. You may also experience a wide range of other emotions such as disappointment or worry about the future. This is normal. Sometimes caregivers feel they must put on a happy face so as not to alarm family, friends or their loved one with cancer. Try not to hold in all your feelings. Instead, speak with someone you trust, such as a loved one, chaplain or professional counselor. A member of your loved one’s health care team, like a social worker or patient navigator, should also be able to speak with you or make a referral.

Share any concerns surrounding the special occasion. If you have specific concerns or requests about the upcoming occasion, it is important to speak with others and make a plan if at all possible. For example, if you will be attending a social gathering but worry you may become emotional, you might consider talking to the host in advance. Tell them you would appreciate their understanding if you need a little time or privacy to collect yourself.

Recognize that you are doing your best. Take time to acknowledge all your efforts to care for your loved one and all you are doing to make the special occasion memorable and enjoyable for everyone involved

Celebrate the strengths you and your loved ones have developed. Cancer can be emotionally, financially and physically draining for the person living with cancer and their caregivers. By facing the day-to-day challenges of living with cancer, many families discover previously unknown strengths and courage. For example, you may recall how brave your loved one was during a complicated surgery or while receiving chemotherapy. You may have been surprised when your loved one agreed to let a neighbor drive him to treatment, even though he had always been shy about asking for help. Reflect on the strengths you have developed and build on them during the holidays.

As a caregiver, it is important to stay flexible. Do not expect yourself to do everything, take time to recharge your own batteries, and if you need help, reach out.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q. My son suggested that I use an Internet technology called Skype to keep in touch with my mother, who is undergoing treatment for breast cancer and lives across the country. What exactly is Skype, and how can I use it?

A. Skype is a technology that allows people to see and talk to each other online in real time, like a video telephone. Each person has a web camera that is connected to the Internet through his or her own computer, tablet or smartphone. Skype software, which can be downloaded from, in the Apple App Store or in the Google Play store (depending on your device), allows people to call the other person and have a private conversation while viewing each other. The software is free, as is the cost of the call, so long as both of you are using Skype. Facebook’s Messenger app is another popular program that allows video calling. FaceTime is a similar feature on iPhones and other Apple devices.

Q. My children and grandchildren always come to my home for a weekend-long Christmas celebration. But this year, I’m being treated for colon cancer, and I had to leave my job. I just don’t feel like I can afford to host it the way I used to. How can I explain this to my grandchildren, especially the younger ones?

A. First, think of this as an opportunity to have a family discussion. One way to do this is to gather everyone together and say that Christmas will be celebrated differently this year, but that it does not make it any less special. Ask your family if they can help think of new ways that you can celebrate that will preserve the spirit of past celebrations. For instance, if you do not feel you can have a Christmas tree this year, kids might cut out pictures and make special frames to remember decorations from previous years.

Next, ask everyone if they have feelings about the upcoming celebration, and particularly with children, emphasize that feelings of sadness or anger are okay. On that note, it is very important to include kids in these family discussions, since they can frequently feel more confused or fearful if they think they are being left in the dark.

Q. My mom is homebound and not able to leave the house for her niece’s birthday party. How can we help include her in the celebration when we live in a different part of the country?

A. A: If there will be party favors or themed decorations, consider sending a small package to your mother ahead of time. You might also want to record the party for her, asking attendees to each film a personal message as a way to bring the party to her and let her know that loved ones are thinking of her. This might also establish a new family tradition: relatives can record various occasions and start a family library of special events that can be viewed again and again.

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Last updated Friday, December 7, 2018

The information presented in this publication is provided for your general information only. It is not intended as medical advice and should not be relied upon as a substitute for consultations with qualified health professionals who are aware of your specific situation. We encourage you to take information and questions back to your individual health care provider as a way of creating a dialogue and partnership about your cancer and your treatment.

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