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Navigating the Holidays When a Loved One Has Cancer

When a loved one has cancer, the holidays look a little different. During a season marked by revered traditions, it can be difficult to “celebrate as usual” while balancing health needs of a loved one fighting cancer. Texas Oncology’s community-based care approach helps patients stay at home during the holidays, when support from family and friends is particularly crucial. Here are some tips to help your family celebrate the holidays while coping with cancer.

Be present

There is no better gift than quality time. Take time to appreciate the company of friends and family.  Rather than dwelling on a loved one’s cancer diagnosis, be sure to invite them to spend time with you for holiday festivities and enjoy the special moments of togetherness the holidays bring.

Adapt traditions

If outdoor activities, such as caroling or flag football, have always been part of your holiday celebrations, consider adjusting them to ensure no one is excluded from the festivities. Instead of caroling, gather around a piano or a speaker to sing holiday classics. In lieu of flag football, test your Wii Sports skills with a game of bowling or tennis, or set up a special “cheering section” where loved ones can participate without over-exertion.

Adjust expectations

The holidays are a particularly difficult time for cancer patients, and your loved one may not feel up to participating in the usual traditions. Consider adding new traditions that patients can participate in. Finding a good balance of down time and social time is key to helping your friend or family member enjoy the season.

Be flexible

Help alleviate stress around holiday scheduling by staying flexible. Offer to change up who is hosting holiday gatherings, propose ordering take-out or hosting a potluck, or suggest alternate sleeping arrangements for out-of-town family and friends to avoid the stress of overnight guests. And remember that even after treatment has ended, recovery can take its toll. You can help by eliminating the expectation that everything should return to normal.

Know what to say (and not say)

Avoid commenting on appearance, changes in mood or energy level. Rather, ask open-ended questions about well-being and offer support. Your loved one may want to share a lot about his or her cancer journey or may not wish to discuss it at all. Give your loved one the freedom to do either. 

  • Say this…
    • “How are you feeling?”
    • “I’ve been thinking about you.”
    • “Is there anything I can do to help make you feel more comfortable?”
  • Not this…
    • “You’ve lost so much weight!”
    • “You’re losing your hair!”
    • “I read about this new treatment on the Internet…”
    • “My friend had the same type of cancer and he/she is in remission now.”

Give a thoughtful gift

Deciding on a gift for someone affected by cancer can be a daunting task. As a general rule, look for gifts that are comforting, distracting, or entertaining.

  • Give this…
    • Crossword puzzles, Sudoku books, or adult coloring books
    • Gift cards to favorite restaurants 
    • Cozy blanket to snuggle 
    • Meditation or personal yoga book
    • Massage or other spa treatment gift card
    • Recovery basket filled with bedtime tea, earplugs, a sleep mask, and comfy pajamas
    • DVDs of funny movies or TV shows
    • Personal note of support or encouragement
  • Not this…
    • Scented candles or anything containing synthetic perfume that might trigger nausea
    • Plants or flowers, which harbor fungal spores that place patients at risk of infection
    • Sweets or candies, as most patients have dietary restrictions or follow nutrition guidelines that limit sugar

Beware of germs

‘Tis the season for the flu! With more cold and flu cases, increased travel, and more visitors than usual, this time of year can be especially hard for someone with a weakened immune system due to cancer treatment. Encourage thorough and frequent handwashing among all family members and guests. 

Dish up delicious food for everyone

Taste changes are a common side effect of cancer treatment. Ask in advance if there are any specific food aversions or needs to consider when preparing your meal. As a general rule, stick to holiday meal staples like turkey, potatoes, and green beans. Avoid foods with strong smells. Add herbs and spices to flavor otherwise bland foods.