dealing with cancer

Dealing With Cancer During The Holidays

Here is another guest post by Sean Akers, PsyD, a licensed clinical pediatric psychologist here at Children’s.

It’s the most wonderful time of the year—or is it? The holidays bring out the best and worst in people. And when you throw your child’s cancer diagnosis or cancer treatment into the mix, stress levels escalate.

It’s understandable. Cancer is challenging no matter what time of year it is. But during the holidays, especially—when everyone around you seems cheerful and merry—your feelings come through in sharp contrast.

While friends and co-workers are planning holiday parties and shopping for gifts, you’re worrying about your child and wondering how your family will make it through the next few weeks.

Making it through might seem impossible, but it’s not. You’ll get there. Consider the following tips for dealing with your child’s cancer during the holidays.

Evaluate Your Expectations.

Regardless of whether your child was just diagnosed with cancer or is going through chemotherapy, the first thing I always encourage people to do is assess their own expectations for the holidays.

When you think about the holidays, a few things happen:

  • You remember past holiday experiences.
  • Cheerful commercials inundate your TV, internet, and radio.
  • You compare your plans to what everyone else is doing.
  • You worry over tradition—and breaking tradition.

As a result, people put unrealistic expectations on themselves. For example, if you cook for your whole family every year, you’re now worried about finding time to do that between trips to the hospital.

Instead of doing what you’ve always done, think about what’s realistic for you during this particular holiday.

Have an open discussion with your spouse. Ask your kids what would make this holiday special for them. Use this cancer diagnosis as an opportunity to explore the very essence of the holidays together.

Break Down Denial.

“Everything is fine. This holiday won’t be any different than the rest. I’ll make sure of it.”

If that sounds like your inner monologue or reflects what you’re hearing from your family, take a second here to stop and breathe.

If you’re telling yourself everything is fine, you may be in denial—a defense mechanism that people use to protect themselves.

Denial is dangerous because when people avoid or don’t process their true feelings, they lock them away in their gut. They risk getting more overwhelmed and developing depression or anxiety.

dealing with cancer

Set aside time for yourself to process your feelings and accept them for what they are, even though this is a happy time of year. Everyone has to cope with emotional challenges around the holidays. No one is completely happy and at peace 100% of the time.

If you deny ongoing, serious feelings, you’re putting yourself at risk. You risk sleep trouble, dietary difficulties, relationship challenges, and more.

Keep An Open Dialogue With Your Kids.

I really advocate being straightforward, calm, and direct with kids. Whether you realize it or not, your kids are picking up on cues from you constantly—and can tell when something isn’t quite right.

So, don’t let your kid’s cancer diagnosis or cancer treatment be the elephant in the room this holiday season. There’s no one good answer on how exactly to talk to kids about cancer, but you can tailor the conversation to their age and personality.

Try asking your kids questions like:

  • What is making you most worried or sad right now?
  • What do you think would make you feel better?
  • How do you want our family to celebrate the holidays this year?

Discuss all the good things about the holidays: travel, engaging with each other, family. Set boundaries with your kids about what you each need and want, and then develop plans to stick to those boundaries.

Practice Self-Care.

And speaking of your wants and needs, consider taking some time for yourself, and encourage your spouse to do the same. Indulge in moments of self-care, so you have the strength to be there for your family.

Self-care means something different to everyone. For me, it’s making art or running. But what works for me won’t necessarily work for you.

You might prefer:

  • Getting a massage
  • Practicing meditation
  • Reading a book
  • Playing music
  • Talking to a therapist
  • Writing in a journal
  • Drawing

Find those things that make you feel good, and make room for them on your calendar.

And as you set that time aside, remember: You’re not just doing this for yourself. You’re doing this for your family. You’re finding a way to not only get through the holidays this year, but to enjoy them together.

Anisa Hoie
I've been a nurse for nearly 32 years, mostly taking care of kids with cancer. My job is to give the kids and their families a personal touch while they go through treatment.

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