Tips on coping with cancer during the holidays

December 19, 2019
Dr. Wendy Balliet gives tips on coping with cancer during holidays
Dr. Wendy Balliet shares her top tips to help cancer patients and caregivers. Photo/Dawn Brazell

Therapist Wendy Balliet, Ph.D., is one of several counselors who help patients at Hollings Cancer Center deal with the emotional aspects of a cancer diagnosis. Here she offers words of advice for both cancer patients and caregivers, knowing that the holidays can be a period that evokes strong emotions, both happy and sad.

Cancer caregiver tips during the holidays

1. Take care of yourself, too!

There's a lot of pressure on caregivers to fix the people they're caring for, internally, most of the time. Your job is not to cure the cancer or fix the disease but to provide support. Oftentimes, the caregivers are the ones who short themselves, which results in burnout, depression and anxiety. Putting your own mask on can mean anything, whether that’s carving out time for a 15-minute hot bath, where it's just you alone, relaxing, or going to the gym for an hour. It doesn't have these big, extravagant things – just something where you can kind of plug in and recharge because you need that to keep going.

2.  Utilize your own support system.

Utilizing your own support system is important when you're the person who's always being relied on. It's easy to forget that there are other people out there who also care about you, so seek support from your friends and family. It almost becomes a chain where you're the caregiver taking care of the person with cancer, but you also have these people who are there to support you and make you feel like it's OK to talk about being overwhelmed. You don't have to struggle 100% of the time.

3.  Tag out.

Tag yourself out, and take a day off. Tag out to a family member –  without beating yourself up about it. That can eat at you, too – the feeling that you have to be there 24/7; you have to be on. And part of that is saying you’re doing this because in the long-run, it's going to allow you to be more helpful to your loved one because you can't do it all.

If you’re a cancer patient or a caregiver

1. Be where your feet are.

I think that for both cancer patients and caregivers, a lot of times, the holidays bring up futuristic thinking: Is this my last Christmas? Where am I going to be this time next year? Where's my mom or dad or wife going to be this time next year? Is this the last time we celebrate?

Try to remember to be where your feet are. Instead of focusing on what's going to happen next year, if this might be your last Christmas or how this Christmas is different from last Christmas, be in the present and figure out ways to continue to do things that are important and meaningful to you, even though there are likely limitations because of the illness. You may be used to having a big family dinner, but the importance behind that is family. Break it up, staggering family either throughout the day or throughout the week. Get creative and keep some of those traditions alive or make new ones.

When you think back on holidays from your childhood, you probably don't remember exactly what presents you got or exactly what the house looked like. You remember the togetherness and the love. Take a step back. Look at the bigger picture and then the meaning behind it.

Cancer patient tips during the holidays

1. Turn off social media.

I heard somewhere that comparison is the killer of joy, and it's so true. It's really hard when you're struggling during the holiday season to see, especially with social media, everybody looking so happy. Meanwhile, you're sick, dealing with chemo and nausea and vomiting and can't have these wonderful meals and experiences that all your friends are having. Turn social media off and appreciate the present moment. Focus on you and not what other people are doing. Remember that you don't always know what other people are going through.

2. Practice gratitude for the seemingly small things.

More often than not, those are really the things that count –not what ugly Christmas sweater parties your best friend is going to that you can't make it to because you're exhausted. Appreciate that you can curl up on the couch with your family and watch a Christmas movie even though you are tired. Have that moment.

3.  Acknowledge your grief.

Whether you’re missing someone or missing a healthier, cancer-free you, acknowledge your grief –you don't have to try to fight it. If you need to, carve out some time –  if only a half-hour a week –  to allow yourself to let go of your feelings and let it out. Have a good cry; let yourself fall apart.

4. Give yourself some slack.

Be patient with yourself, accepting what your limitations are. Reach out for support when you need it. Sharing your sadness helps lighten the load.

5. Talk to your doctors.

Don’t be afraid to talk to your doctors about your holiday scheduling concerns. Maybe there is a way to schedule chemo and radiation around your holiday plans. It may or may not be possible, but don't be too intimidated to ask.

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