The holidays can bring contrasting emotions. You might feel joyful and stressed, happy and sad, or even grateful and annoyed.
Having cancer, or a loved one with cancer, can make these emotions even more poignant.
Lilian Rodriguez, a social work counselor who leads MD Anderson’s Spanish-speaking General Cancer Patient Support Group, says these mixed feelings are normal.
“You can enjoy a holiday and be in a difficult place, but also be grateful for the time you have,” she says. “All your emotions are very real and very valid, even if it's supposed to be a great time or a happy time.”
Rodriguez shares how cancer patients and their families can make the most of the holiday season at different points in cancer treatment.
Small updates can make plans more enjoyable for those in cancer treatment
It can feel bizarre to celebrate the holidays after an experience as earth-shattering as a cancer diagnosis. But patients and their families can benefit from being together during this time, even if plans and traditions need to be adjusted.
When considering holiday plans during cancer treatment, Rodriguez recommends asking, “What can I do to make this feel more enjoyable in the meantime?”
The answer might look like changing the date or time of a celebration, even if that means not celebrating on the actual holiday. It might also mean considering treatment side effects like nausea or fatigue and being understanding if a patient doesn’t finish their meal or needs to leave early to rest.
“If a patient is going through chemotherapy, they might not have the energy or even the appetite to enjoy a big meal,” Rodriguez says.
For families who have a friend or loved one in the hospital, even a short visit can help spread holiday joy. Bonus points if you bring dessert!
“Visiting with a patient for a little bit and bringing some pie if the patient can eat it, I think that definitely helps,” Rodriguez says. “A sense of normalcy, especially when it comes to the holidays, can help reduce the sadness or anxiety that may come with being admitted during a time that is often spent with loved ones.”
While it might be tempting to go through the holidays without acknowledging the changes cancer can bring, it is important for patients and their families to be open about how they are feeling. Rodriguez suggests talking to a counselor, discussing feelings with family or using a journal to reflect.
Use the holidays for legacy planning
Patients with terminal cancer can choose to embrace the holidays as much — or as little — as they feel physically and emotionally capable of, Rodriguez says.
“Definitely embrace the holiday if you feel available to do so,” she says. “If it's a little bit harder to be open to celebrating the holiday, that's OK, too. You don’t have to fully participate in something.”
The holidays can also be a time for those with terminal cancer to start legacy planning or make plans for how they'd like to be remembered and celebrated. This could look like starting a holiday tradition with friends and family, creating a holiday décor heirloom, writing down a favorite holiday recipe or recording holiday wishes for friends and family.
Survivors may need extra support during the holidays
For cancer survivors, the holidays might feel extra joyous and festive with lots to be grateful for, but they can also come with heavy emotions.
“Your emotions aren’t limited to when you have cancer. There's a lot that continues afterward,” Rodriguez says.
She notes the holidays might coincide with a diagnosis anniversary, or bring up feelings of survivor’s guilt or fear that cancer might return.
“For patients who are in remission, the holidays can continue to be hard to process in the long run. It can be a little bit triggering,” she says.
To cope with these feelings, survivors can lean on friends and family for support, reach out to a therapist or join a cancer survivorship support group.
Survivors might also choose to give back during the holidays by reaching out to other cancer patients or joining myCancerConnection, MD Anderson's one-on-one cancer support community.
Honor and remember loved ones with their favorite holiday activities
Facing the holidays after losing a loved one to cancer can be devastating, but there are many ways to honor and remember them.
Rodriguez says it can be helpful to dedicate the holiday to your loved one or look back on photos or videos of past holidays together.
Families may also start new holiday traditions in honor of their loved ones, such as having a game night to play their favorite card or board game, watching their favorite holiday movie or listening to their favorite songs.
“The holidays can definitely be difficult, but you can also use it as an opportunity to reflect on that person, on memories during the holidays with that person and even have something that makes it feel like they're still there with you," Rodriguez says.