Make Your Holidays Meaningful When You Have Cancer

By Holly Pevzner
Reviewed by John D. Hainsworth, MD, and Roy S. Weiner, MD

  • Make Your Holidays Meaningful When You Have Cancer

    The shopping, the baking, the hosting, the crafting, the traveling—and the overwhelming pressure to be cheerful. When you have cancer, the holidays can be an especially emotional—and stressful—time. Yet for many people, being ill can make the holidays even more meaningful. Here, survivors and healthcare providers offer their best advice on getting through the holidays happier, healthier—and with a smidge more fa-la-la in your heart.

  • Have fun—your way.

    1. Have fun—your way.

    You can still enjoy yourself if you’re undergoing treatment. “For example, instead of feeling self-conscious about losing your hair, wear a Santa’s hat to dinner,” says Seb Gillen, 22, a neuroblastoma survivor from Westchester County, NY. “If you’re in the hospital during the holidays, have a fancy dinner in your room. It’s less about trying to re­­create the experiences you had before and more about creating new experiences that don’t deny your illness.”

  • Give differently.

    2. Give differently.

    “For the holidays, my husband and I had to cut expenses, so we suggested playing the Holiday Take-Away Game with extended family instead of buying individual gifts,” says Diane Bowely, 50, who has breast cancer. “Everyone who wants to participate brings a $20 gender-neutral gift, and we pass out cards. When your card’s called, you either pick a gift or steal one from someone else. The whole thing is such fun, and we were relieved that the pressure to buy gifts for everyone was gone.”

  • Do

    3. Do unto others.

    “Using this time of year to help others can be especially uplifting,” says Greta Greer, director of survivor programs at the American Cancer Society in Atlanta. She suggests donating toys to a local charity, volunteering at a shelter or contacting your cancer center to see if the pediatric patients need anything this holiday season.

  • Ask for help.

    4. Ask for help.

    “I was worried about physically being able to cook,” says Ann Silberman, 53, a Sacramento, CA-based breast cancer survivor. “I had my mastectomy at the end of October and was still in treatment. I resigned myself to the fact that I wouldn’t be doing my normal feast, but my stepdaughter stepped up to cook the entire meal.” The lesson: There’s no need to wait for someone to offer help. Just call a loved one and say, “I’d love to spend the holidays with you, but I can’t swing all of the hosting duties. Can someone else take the reins?”

  • Shop smarter.

    5. Shop smarter.

    The mall? During the holidays? “Never again!” says Ann. “I’m on continuous chemo and my white blood cell count is often quite low, so being in crowds isn’t always safe for me. Plus, the mall is exhausting! Instead, I shop for the holidays online.”

    Can’t give up the instant gratification of shopping at the mall? Go on a weekday morning. It will be less crowded and less exhausting. But if your white blood cell counts are low, put off your shopping because you’re more susceptible to infection.

  • Zero in.

    6. Zero in.

    “Distill what’s important to you during the holidays—and make sure your family knows it,” says Ann. Some people just want to spend time snuggled up with family members, while others want more formal festivities. “If you want a fully decorated house, including a partridge in a pear tree, then ask for help,” says Ann. “Most people will do as you request.”

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