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'Tis the Season for Coping with Cancer

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tistheseason.jpgBy Stephen Collazo, Department of Social Work

Shopping, putting out decorations, going to parties, cooking food, attending religious services, mailing cards, wrapping gifts,hosting the in-laws. Stressed out yet?

Making it through the holiday season without a cancer diagnosis affecting you or someone you love can be difficult in itself. Now add blood tests, chemotherapy, nausea, doctor's appointments, scans, fatigue, radiation, inpatient hospital stays, and waiting for test results. 

The holiday season can be an especially trying time for people with cancer based on the sheer number of expectations that get added during these few months.

But it's more than just how overbooked your schedule can become in December. 

Everywhere around us on TV, the Internet, radio, even inside the stores we visit, we're told on a daily basis to "be merry" and "have cheer."

If you or someone you know is going through cancer, trying to live up to the expectations of how the holidays are supposed to make us feel can be almost impossible.

Dealing with a serious illness like cancer during these upcoming weeks can leave many feeling lonely and confused, when everything and everyone seems to be so full of joy. 

Here are a few suggestions to help you and your support system cope during the holidays.

1. Be realistic. Cancer changes things. Many aspects of patients' and families' lives are affected by the cancer experience. 

Understanding the idea of the "new normal" is a helpful mindset for many cancer survivors.  What you and your family did during the holiday season in the past might be different this year, and that's OK.

You might not be able to take on as many different responsibilities or do as many things to celebrate during this time. But sometimes the guilt of not being able to live up to the expectations you place on yourself can lead some people to feeling exhausted, depressed and frustrated.  

Accept your new limitations, find the aspects of the holidays that you can still celebrate, and then choose to find joy and fulfillment in the parts of the season that you can control.

2. Be specific. The emotional and practical impact that cancer can have on patients and families during December can be difficult to go through alone. Ask your support system for help. And ask for specific ways they can help.

Most people are more than willing to help if they know how. It could be something tangible like helping decorate your tree or running errands. It could also be something intangible like an open ear to vent to or just a person to sit with when you get lonely.  

A common hesitation for many people affected by cancer is that they don't want to become a burden on others. But put the shoe on the other foot. We choose the people we surround ourselves with because they are kind to us and care about us.  

If one of your friends or someone in their family were diagnosed with cancer, would you be willing to help them out if they asked? 

3. Be creative. Just because you can't celebrate the same way you have in the past doesn't mean you can't enjoy the season at all. Think of new ways to enjoy this time that might fit better with you and your loved ones' "new normal."  

Some people might have to stay in the hospital during this time. So, have some guests visit you and listen to holiday music or watch a movie together.  

Finances may be an issue for your family. Instead of stressing about buying the newest gadget for each other, write a thoughtful letter, create a handmade gift together, or just talk with that person and share what you value about them.  

You might not feel like traveling to visit family or you might not be capable of taking long trips. Arrange a phone call or, if you have a computer with a webcam, schedule a time to video chat so you can still feel close to your loved ones  though you might be miles away.

It's OK, not to feel cheery

If there's one thing to be mindful of as the holiday season is upon us, remember that it's OK to not feel as cheery and joyful as all the songs tell us to. It's normal to experience conflicting emotions at the same time.

Feeling happy about the holiday season, while also being upset that you or someone you care about is dealing with cancer, can be a normal reaction. I hope that during the upcoming season, you and the people you care about can find your own special and meaningful to enjoy this time together.

If you think you might need to speak with someone at MD Anderson about coping through the holiday season, call the Department of Social Work at 713-792-6195, send a message through myMDAnderson, or ask your nurse or doctor if you can speak with your social work counselor.

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