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Q&A: How to Manage Living with Cancer During the Holidays

, by NCI-CONNECT Staff

Credit: iStock

Our neuro-oncology care providers answered the most common questions they receive during the holidays. Read their advice to help you manage living with a brain and spine tumor so you can enjoy the holiday season.

Holiday parties, decorating, cooking, gift-giving, and preparing to visit with family and friends may make you more anxious than excited. With cancer care or caregiving, where do you fit in the list of endless holiday demands? And how do you fit in with those around you unable to relate?

The loss of a loved one to cancer – recent or not – can also be painful during the holidays. Our experts are here to help. We asked Alvina Acquaye, health and wellness counselor, NCI-CONNECT; Terri Armstrong, Ph.D., deputy chief and senior investigator; Heather Leeper, M.D., assistant research physician; Marta Penas-Prado, M.D., associate research physician; and Christine Siegel, Nurse Practitioner; all of NCI’s Center for Cancer Research, Neuro-Oncology Branch to answer your pressing and common questions about managing cancer during the holidays. Use their advice to help you stress less and cheer more.

Q: How do I manage the stress of cancer with the demands of the holidays?  

A: The holidays without cancer can cause stress. Add in doctor appointments and treatments and it can be overwhelming. Take care of yourself and plan to pace yourself. Make it a point to also briefly check-in with yourself. Ask yourself: How am I doing right now? What do I need right now? After you identify what you need, come up with an action plan to take care of your needs.

Be aware of the physical stress of entertaining and traveling and do not overexert yourself. Ask friends and family to help with tasks like wrapping presents or taking you or your loved one to appointments. You can also order takeout, shop online, and decline being this year’s party host. If you feel really overwhelmed, try relaxation techniques and slow rhythmic breathing, or gift yourself a massage.

Q: How do I manage fatigue from treatment with holiday activities? 

A: Treatment side effects, like fatigue, nausea and pain, can make partaking in all holiday activities unattainable. Plan ahead and communicate with loved ones. Decide which activities are most important to you and save your energy for them. Tell family and friends in advance that you may not be able to participate in all or certain activities. You can also ask for help with physical tasks like cooking and decorating. And as busy as the holiday season is, take time to rest and relax. Practice good sleep habits, eat healthy, and get moving. A brisk 10-minute walk can be energizing.

Q: How can I provide an update on my cancer and avoid answering the same questions over and over?

A: Repeating how cancer has affected you or your loved one can be exhausting. You can avoid feeling like a broken record by communicating your diagnosis and treatment with your family and friends in advance. You or a loved one can send an email, a text message, or a social media post that provides a status update you’re comfortable sharing.

Telling people how you are or how treatments are affecting you in advance can also help prepare family and friends if you have experienced physical or cognitive changes. If others ask for details of your diagnosis or treatment, remember you are free to share as much or as little as you are comfortable with. If you choose to share, here is an example of what you can say:  

I have a tumor in my brain and/or spinal cord. Brain and spinal cord tumors in adults are rare. The treatments and symptoms are quite different from other cancers. My tumor and the treatments make it challenging for me to speak, walk, and remember names and dates.   

Q: What are good gifts for a person going through treatment?

A:  A meaningful gift recognizes the needs of a person. Write an encouraging message on a card or share your favorite photo or memory with them. Blankets, pillows, eye masks, water bottles, food and gas gift cards, magazines, books, and other items to keep them busy while they sit through chemotherapy, for example, are useful. You can also offer to help them with tasks they can’t do during treatments or may be too tired to do afterward. Offer to wrap their presents, help them decorate, or cook them dinner.

Q: Can I travel before or after treatments and what do I need to bring with me?

A: Cancer treatments shouldn’t prevent you from traveling, but there are precautions you should take. Talk to your doctor about your personal treatment plan to see if you can delay treatment or change a scheduled appointment. Items you should take during your trip include your treating doctor’s name and contact information and a list of medications with dosage information. You and your caregiver should also consider wearing medic alert bracelets.

Airports are busy during the holidays. Wash your hands often or carry hand sanitizer. You can also carry disinfectant wipes to clean sitting areas and tray tables. If you use a wheelchair or have other medical equipment, or need assistance going through security, review TSA Airport Security guidelines and procedures in advance to make your travels less stressful.

Q: How can I honor the memory of my deceased loved one?

A: Many feel the loss of their deceased loves ones more intensely during the holidays because we have so many memories, family traditions, and gatherings surrounding this time of the year. There are many ways to honor and cherish your loved ones during the holidays: preparing their favorite foods, playing their favorite songs, sharing memories of them with friends and family by displaying their picture, looking at family photo albums together, and honoring their legacy by acting on or carrying out their wishes, making donations in their name, or lighting a candle in their honor.

Closing Tips to Enjoy the Holidays

If you find yourself feeling overwhelmed, then give yourself time and space to feel however you are feeling. Be kind to yourself by not taking on more than you feel you can handle. Pay attention to when you are feeling irritated, angry, tired, or overwhelmed as these can be signs of exhaustion. 

Try to enjoy your holiday season and celebrations in whatever form they take. This year may be different than years past and that’s ok. Partake in the activities you enjoy most, ask for help and start new traditions. Your health and wellness during the holidays are paramount and those around you will understand. The holidays are about renewed hope and being grateful for your loved ones or honoring their memory. You can also use these eight coping tips to help lift your spirits.  

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