Coping with Cancer During the Holidays

By: Bonnie Dockham, LMSW, Cancer Support Community Executive Director

The holiday season brings joy and cheer to many, but what if you are dealing with cancer or recently lost a loved one? Here are some simple strategies to help cope with the holidays when cancer is a part of life:


  • Expect to have some emotional pain. When the feelings come, let them.
  • Accept a few invitations to be close with family or friends. Choose the ones that sound most appealing to you at the time, and avoid ones that feel like an obligation.
  • Talk about your feelings. Let people know if you are having a tough day.
  • If the idea of holiday shopping overwhelms you, buy gifts online or through catalogs.
  • Replace negative thoughts with positive affirmations such as, “in spite of this difficult time, I will try to enjoy this season.”
  • Feel comfortable telling people around you that you might not have the energy that you usually have during the holidays. Ask for help with cards, wrapping, etc. This also helps people who care about you feel useful.
  • Prepare yourself for January. Sometimes the aftermath of any big event can bring on a sense of loneliness.
  • Minimize financial stressors, set a budget and stick to it.
  • Learn to say no- people will understand.
  • Get regular exercise, even walking helps remove tension and improve mood.
  • Take time for yourself, for relaxation and solitude.
  • Remember, laughter can be very healing!
  • Know that limiting exposure to the holidays can be the best option for some.


  • Hide your feelings from children in an effort to “be strong” for them or protect them. You’ll only be teaching them to deny their own feelings.
  • Don’t isolate yourself. Although you might not feel much like celebrating, accept a few invitations.
  • Don’t accept every invitation or throw yourself into work in an effort to keep busy, it may only add to stress.
  • Don’t act as if everything is the same, unless you truly feel this way.
  • Don’t be afraid to cry. Think of yourself as a teapot, as the stem builds up, it has to have somewhere to go. Crying lets the steam out.
  • Don’t use alcohol to mask the pain.


  • Encourage them to talk about their feelings. Listen to them; you do not need to have the “right” response. Usually just being willing to listen is enough.
  • Be aware that the survivor might not feel like being festive. Take cues from them.
  • Keep inviting the person with cancer to be a part of things, even if they say no, leave the invitation open.
  • Let them cry.
  • Don’t pretend that nothing is going on-it is OK to bring it up and check on them.
  • Don’t consistently treat the person with cancer like “a china doll.” This behavior can be a reminder to the person with cancer that they are ill.
  • Ask specific questions regarding potential needs of the person going through cancer, such as “Would you like to spend some time visiting?” or “Would it be helpful if I prepared some meals for you to store?” Whatever is appropriate for this person’s particular needs. This is more helpful than the general statement “If there is anything I can do, let me know.”
  • Don’t say things like:
    • “Everything happens for a reason”
    • “I know how you feel”


Overall, there is no right or wrong way to celebrate the holidays.  Some may wish to stick with tradition, while others might choose to change things.  Don’t feel you have to make every moment perfect, you might just end up exhausting yourself both physically and emotionally by doing this.  Most of all, take advantage of the holiday season.  It’s a time to lighten up, and celebrate life and what is meaningful to YOU!


Works Cited

“Coping with Cancer During the Holidays”-transcript. Blum, D. 12/2/2003.

“Coping with Grief During the Holidays.”

“Surviving the Holidays while Surviving Cancer.”  Filocamo, D. Trinitas Comprehensive Cancer Center. 12/19/2006.


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