Coping with cancer during the holidays

Nov 27,2012

By Jan Spencer, MSW, LCSW, OSW-C

The holidays are filled with tradition and celebration. It’s a time of reuniting with family and friends and enjoying the festivities around food, decorating and gift giving. During the holidays, it’s hard to break out of traditional roles. If cancer has entered your life, either for you or a loved one, it may be necessary to redefine how you celebrate the holiday season.

Hosting the family gathering, prepare an elaborate meal or decorate your home — things may have to be different this year. Family members may expect to continue roles and traditions; for you or someone in your family, this will be difficult, especially if you have finished treatment.

The best way to approach the season is to first acknowledge where you and your family may find yourselves:

  • Recognize physical limitations brought on by current or past cancer treatment. Fatigue, pain, nausea or vomiting can make performing traditional tasks much more difficult.
  • Costs relating to treatment can place a financial burden on holiday spending.
  • Cancer treatment can place a strain on personal relationships, which can be emphasized during the holidays.
  • Fear of recurrence or worsening condition can cause a patient to place undue pressure on themselves to make the holidays “perfect.”
  • Unreasonable expectations can be unhealthy and cause fatigue and stress to worsen.


The holidays can be stressful under the best of circumstances. Despite the joy surrounding this season, many people experience feelings of sadness, depression and loneliness. This is especially true for those living with cancer. When the side effects of cancer treatment are added to the mix, the stress can be overwhelming.

To avoid disappointing loved ones and feeling overwhelmed, it’s good to set realistic expectations of what your holidays can look like. Here are some tips to get the most enjoyment out of the holidays:


  • Prioritize and reframe your expectations. Identify and focus on holiday traditions and activities that are most important to you.
  • Learn to say NO. Limit your involvement in activities. Think of your needs and put yourself first.
  • Rethink your traditions. Consider ways to modify your traditions. Enlist the help of family and friends.
  • Be a modern shopper. Try online shopping and take advantage of gift-wrapping and direct shipping options. E-cards can be sent in lieu of mailing.
  • Manage your stress. Make it a priority to get regular exercise, eat sensibly and get enough sleep. Avoid overindulging in unhealthy holiday food and drinks, long days and late nights. Pace yourself.
  • Seek support. It is very common to feel overwhelmed and/or depressed during the holidays, especially when living with cancer. It’s important to share those feelings with loved ones or a professional. There are many resources to help you cope during this time. Consider journaling your feelings, short daily walks, time with friends, ‘cat naps’ and listening to relaxing music.


There are numerous local and online resources that can support you and your family if you have been affected by cancer. Call the Samaritan Cancer Resource Center at (541) 812-5880 or click here for more information.

Jan Spencer is a licensed clinical social worker and certified oncology social worker. She also serves as the director of Samaritan Cancer Resource Center in North Albany.