How to Help Someone with Cancer Enjoy the Holiday Season?

The holiday season is coming and preparations are underway!  All the hustle and bustle culminates into family gatherings full of luscious meals, gifts, reminiscing, and tradition.  During this time we seek to renew relationships, reconnect with our roots, take in the new additions to the family and celebrate life.  New memories abound!

All of this sounds great, but when you and your family are dealing with a cancer diagnosis and treatment, the holiday season can present a whole new set of concerns.   Many questions flood your mind like:

  • How will I manage shopping, decorating, cooking and gatherings with this fatigue?
  • How festive will it feel when the mood is dampened with the diagnosis?
  • What will next year bring?
  • How can this ever feel like a “normal” holiday season?
  • How can we manage gifts with the financial strain placed on us with the medical bills?
  • What kind of gift will be appropriate our survivor?
  • How will everyone react when they see the physical changes?
  • Will we become emotional, or even want to participate?
  • What if the survivor is hospitalized during the holidays?
  • The questions go on and on…


Relax and know that with plenty of communication, planning, creativity and a very fluid sense of flexibility the holidays can be managed to maximize new memories and enjoyment while minimizing anxiety and disappointment.  First and foremost, sit down and be honest about what it is you love about the holidays, what traditions and gatherings are a must, and what preparations are absolutely necessary to support your love for the season.   Employ those who would love to help pull off your new holiday plan. Be realistic and really honest with yourself as well as others about your limitations.

Gatherings and events schedule


Now, look at the calendar and make a list of the upcoming gatherings and other important dates.  Thin out the events, only including those which are vital and will do the survivor’s heart well while paying close attention to the spacing of the events.  Be sure to include dates for decorating, gift wrapping, shopping, travel, cooking and such.  Try not to pull off back-to-back dates, as fatigue is typically an issue.  You can also combine events, like decorating the house while everyone is present on Thanksgiving Day.

And remember, this year you have a “get out of jail free card” so go ahead, and say “no,” they will understand. 

You can also leave early, so plan on it when that will help you cover the bases, which are important to you.


And support system, if the survivor is homebound, but wants to participate, consider bringing the gathering to them!  Set up, host and clean up for them.  Allow them to do what they feel they are able to do while maintaining the energy to enjoy the fun.  This can be a great option, because it places the survivor in their most confortable environment.  At home they have the opportunity to retreat to their bedroom or bathroom if they must rest, or if they feel sick.  If they do, don’t panic.  They will not want too much attention focused on them. Just check in often, and support them as needed.


How will others react to the person who was diagnosed with cancer?


It can be horrible to disappear into the diagnosis.  You fear the look on everyone’s face when they see you.  They see your diagnosis and the physical changes that followed.  You just want to feel “normal” and be yourself again.  You want others to treat you as they did.  But, when someone you love faces a cancer diagnosis, your heart holds back all sorts of emotions like helplessness, anger, empathy, heartbreak, awe or fear.  Then you look on that loved one and find the physical evidence of their illness, well how can you NOT react.

OK, it’s a given, things are different this year, but the awkwardness, anxiety and isolation can be minimized. 

My suggestions are:

  • Write a letter!

This will be sent to all upcoming visitors and will explain the changes, and the heart of the survivor.  Let them know that the survivor does not expect any particular wisdom from them, just treat them the same as they would any other year.

  • Make a video call!

This should be short and sweet.  Call all upcoming visitors and the intention is to put them at ease with the survivor as well to answer any questions.

  • Laugh a bit!

Lighten the mood with some humor in the letter, call or at the gathering itself.

  • Enjoy each other!

During the gathering, let folks know they can laugh and talk about football, or recipes, or anything but dwell on cancer.

  • Melt down?

If someone, or several do get emotional, it is OK!  But do not wallow there.  Release the mood and your fears, being grateful for what today offers and enjoy!


Embrace new traditions


Ok, so it may be near impossible to pull off some of the old traditions this year, but ask yourself…why do we do what we do? The response to that question may lead you to a new version of the old tradition.

 Family Sledding

For instance, my family celebrates communion every Christmas Eve.  This happens in a lovely warm setting.  But one year the family found itself piled up in my brother’s SUV, in a truck stop for hours, as the mechanics frantically worked to get us back on the road home.  We were stranded with midnight approaching and my mother hid her disappointment that we would not be sharing our cherished communion together.  This tradition kept us grounded in our faith and focused on the entire reason we celebrate, so it was a big deal to us.  Thinking outside the box, I ran into the truck stop, purchased crackers and grape juice, and snagged a Bible.  We had communion in my brother’s truck; creating a new memory that none of us will ever forget.

Remember, think outside of the box!

How to manage preparation?


Survivor & immediate family:  Again, keep it simple and meaningful!

  • Whenever possible, buy what you need online.
  • Prepare dishes early, one-at-a-time and freeze them, simplify meals (sandwiches and soup?) or better yet… potluck!
  • And do not forget to address the issue of food smells that induce nausea as well as foods that the survivor can tolerate.
  • Use gift bags.
  • Allow others to help you when you need it, but don’t wait until you make yourself sick with exhaustion.
  • Remember to prioritize and do less.  Enjoy the process, working together with those who love you, then relax into their acts of service when you are spent.

 Let that new perspective of yours transform your experience of the holiday season into something more and better!

 Support system: The family who is dealing with cancer does have a lot on their plate, those in their support system really want to help, and the patient wants to feel normal, so a balance in this area is important.  The idea is to help the holiday season move forward in as normal a fashion as possible.  If the family would typically decorate, allow them to do as much as they can, and be present to seamlessly take over when they run out of steam.

 Be respectful of the patient’s position in the family and support them in their efforts, rather than taking over.

 Do not just offer to grocery shop, gift shop or run errands, but put it on the calendar, coordinating with their schedule.  Delegate and have someone show up often, keeping most visits short.  Remember to balance with your needs, those of your family and the needs of your survivor.

 You should know that accepting help may be hard for your friend because it can feel like an admission that cancer treatment has stolen one more thing, their ability to care for themselves or their family.

Do your best to give that back to them.


Gifts & financial concerns


The survivor and familymay reduce the number of gifts purchased for financial as well as logistical reasons.  Maybe draw names, and then give more sentimental gifts.  Settle into a refreshing season in which shared experiences are the highlight of the holidays.


 And when considering gifts for a survivor, remember, to try to give what you would if they had not been diagnosed.  In that way you can show you still know who they are.  Consider experiential gifts such as a massage, tickets to a sporting event, an intimate dinner out, a coveted concert or a trip to the museum.  If you purchase something that is related to their diagnoses, make it useful in their fight!


 Watch for depression or anxiety


The holidays can be an emotional challenge in the best of circumstances.  With all of the change this year, watch out for depression or anxiety in all who are affected by the diagnosis.  You may worry what this year or even next year will hold, but choose to let go of that.

 Take this thing one day at a time and work to thrive today in your current situation. 

 The first line of defense to manage stress should be balance that includes:

  • A healthy diet
  • Adequate sleep
  • Open, honest communication (mentorship may be vital in this area).

If these suggestions do not offer enough support to ward off depression and/or anxiety, seek profession help. 

Hospitalized through the holidays?

If a survivor is hospitalized, bring the celebration to them, possibly on a smaller scale.

  • Cozy up their room with family pictures, letters, cards, a few decorations, familiar holiday music and mood lighting.
  • Offer to run errands, and show up often.
  • Try to ensure those who care and are cared for visit regularly, offering diversions as they come.
  • Keep visits short.  When visiting be conscious of the survivor’s level of exhaustion.
  • Laugh, reminisce, and play cards, just as you would at home if possible.
  • Consider organizing a group of familiar faces that will come by and carol throughout the hospital floor, taking the patient with them when realistic.
  • Bring instruments to play.
  • Offer gifts of diversion, like audio books, music, photo albums, electronic devices, reading materials, and anything relevant to their interests.
  • When a celebration cannot come into the hospital, arrange a video call that bridges the gap!

Wrap up!

Gosh, this WAS a lot of information this week, but so much can be done to help someone with cancer thrive through the holidays.  Just get selfless and balanced and let a lovely holiday season unfold.

Warm wishes to all!