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Coping With Cancer During The Holiday Season

12/22/2016 04:53 EST | Updated 12/22/2016 04:54 EST
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Older woman and granddaughter decorating Christmas tree

Written by Denise Bilodeau, a social worker at Sunnybrook's Odette Cancer Centre.

The holidays can be overwhelming for many people, but they can be especially tough for patients and their caregivers who are also dealing with doctor's appointments, treatment, side effects, and the emotional strain of a cancer diagnosis.

Going through cancer treatment during the holidays can completely change your perspective during what should be one of the happiest times of the year. Patients and families struggle with how they can celebrate when they or someone close to them is coping with cancer. Patients wonder if they will feel well enough to enjoy the holidays when they going through radiation treatment, receiving chemotherapy or recovering from surgery.

There are questions about whether they will have the energy to participate in family celebrations and worries about what the coming year will bring. While everyone else is moving ahead with holiday preparations and celebrations, our patients are facing a very uncertain future. They may feel pressured (by themselves or others) to carry on with the traditional holiday rituals, even though they may not have the physical or emotional energy to do so.

As the holiday season gets into full swing, here are some tips for families affected by cancer.

Focus on your own well-being.

Whether you are a patient or a caregiver, first and foremost you have to focus on your own well-being. Eat well, ensure that you get your rest -- including naps -- and stay hydrated. Do not abandon your regular routines to accommodate the hectic holidays as these routines are what have helped you cope so far. Allow yourself to do less than you are accustomed to doing during this season and allow yourself to ask for help, whether that is with picking up gifts or bringing in food or helping with decorating and cleaning.

It's OK to say no.

Remember that it is OK to say no. You do not have to accept every invitation or accommodate every request. Most importantly, be flexible and know that, even if plans have been made, you may have to reschedule or change plans depending on how you or your loved one is feeling that day -- and let people know that when you accept or offer an invitation.

Plan ahead.

Clinic closures may be a source of stress for you or your loved one. It is important to know what dates the cancer centre is closed over the holidays and who to contact in the off hours if you run into difficulty. Ensure that you have enough of all your prescription medication to last through the holidays

Prepare for questions.

Inevitably, family and friends you see over the holidays may ask questions about your diagnosis and how you are doing. Allow people the benefit of the doubt that their questions are expressions of concern. But know also that you do not need to explain your medical situation or provide any information beyond what you are comfortable disclosing. It may be helpful to coordinate an exit plan with one of your caregivers if you feel their questions or inquiries are becoming overwhelming.

Remember things may be different - but try not to focus on those differences.

This holiday season is not like all the others so do not pressure yourself to make it so. Give yourself the time and the permission to make changes and create new traditions this year that make it easier for you to participate. Instead of making the whole Christmas dinner, offer to host a potluck. Or hand the tradition to a sibling or child.

Try not to focus on what might be missing, on what tradition wasn't kept, or on what might be different about this year's holiday season from those in the past. Rather, try to focus on the moment and enjoy your celebration in whatever form it takes. Remember what the holidays are truly about -- a time for being thankful and sharing with others.

If you have concerns about how to cope with the stress of the holidays, talk to your health care provider and let them know how you are feeling. Support is available through the Patient and Family Support Program at the Odette Cancer Centre. Wellspring also has various support programs available in Ontario and Alberta, or find support programs across Canada.

Find more information about living with cancer from Sunnybrook experts at health.sunnybrook.ca

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