How to Help a Loved One With Cancer This Holiday Season

Family members embrace while gazing at holiday decorations

The holidays are fast approaching and along with them, the stress that always accompanies this time of year. Things are even harder if you are dealing with mesothelioma or any cancer diagnosis. Add to that the stress of the pandemic and things can seem downright depressing and overwhelming.

As a mesothelioma survivor, I have experience dealing with cancer during the holidays. I hope my holiday experiences with cancer can help others in a similar situation.

Holiday Lessons Learned From Mesothelioma Survivor Heather Von St. James

As a patient going through active treatment, you are torn between wanting to be with loved ones during the holidays or preserving your health and energy. We often feel guilty for not being able to participate in regular holiday activities.

I was diagnosed in November, right before Thanksgiving. Talk about putting a damper on things. We went to my sister-in-law’s home, as she had planned a huge feast.

I am not going to lie; it was very difficult.

Although I know they love me, I couldn’t help but feel that my presence was a huge downer for everyone. They were so polite and kind, but we didn’t address the elephant in the room. It was as if people were too cheery. They laughed a little too hard at a joke or fussed over my baby more than normal.

I left feeling strange, sad and just down about the whole situation. I wish we could have just agreed that yes, this whole cancer thing sucks. Addressing the obvious would have eased everyone’s mood, but in true stoic Minnesota form, we all just pretended everything was normal.

Because of this, I dreaded the holidays. It was also my baby’s first Christmas, so it was supposed to be memorable, and it was, but for all the wrong reasons. Gifts seemed insignificant and trite when I honestly didn’t know if I would be alive to enjoy them or see my baby play with them. Perhaps a bit of morbid thinking, yes, but that is where my mind went.

I felt like I was letting everyone down, most of all my new baby and husband.

The truth of the matter was my husband was in the same boat as I. And as far as our baby? There was no way they would ever remember their first Christmas.

My husband and I were honest with each other and decided that Christmas would be just the three of us. That was the best decision for us that year.

Was it difficult? Yes. We would have loved to be surrounded by our families and enjoy the festivities. But, we knew this year, we just didn’t have it in us. So, this was best. Being honest and managing expectations has helped ever since.

Patients and Caregivers Can Handle Holiday and Cancer Stress Together

As a caregiver, one can’t help but think of how our loved one’s illness is going to affect us. It’s normal to feel a little resentment or anger about the whole situation. It is absolutely a type of grieving.

The thing to remember is this: Your loved one is no happier about the situation than you are.

These techniques may help patients and loved ones through the season:

  • Avoiding overcommitment: Often, the patient will try and push through events so as not to upset people. This can backfire if you’re not careful, leaving them too exhausted to do anything. Everything in moderation is my mantra.
  • Communicating openly and clearly: Communication is key through times like these.
  • Keeping treatment side effects in mind: If your loved one is in active treatment, they may not feel good enough to be around a bunch of people. Their energy levels are low. Just sitting up for a few hours can completely drain a person, not to mention the effects chemotherapy has on the appetite and sense of taste. Most holiday festivities revolve around food, so for many patients, this is unpleasant. Please, be mindful of how the patient feels and where they are in the treatment phase.
  • Setting realistic expectations: Adjust your ideas of what the holidays will look like. No, they won’t look like past years, because everything has changed. But, you can make modifications and enjoy a different type of holiday.
  • Taking COVID-19 precautions: Things are still uncertain with the status of COVID-19. There are very high caseloads to contend with in most every state. Going through cancer treatment leaves one immunocompromised, and a COVID-19 diagnosis could be disastrous. Cancer patients and loved ones can manage this by following COVID-19 guidance from health authorities.

My Advice for Getting Through the Holidays

Pandemic concerns alongside the stress of the holidays are enough to make anyone break down and cry. What is my advice for getting through it?

  • Set boundaries to prioritize the patient’s health: Explain to family and friends that you would love to see them, but the safety and health of the patient is of the utmost importance right now. Unannounced visits are not the best thing for the patient at this time. Offer to do a virtual gathering or keep visits to a minimum. Do what feels comfortable and safe to you.
  • Take things day by day: Deal with just one day at a time. If you do have plans for certain days, understand that things can change, often without notice, and that’s ok.

What is the other very important thing for caregivers?

Make sure to take some time for yourself this holiday season. You have so much on your plate as it is. Go see a movie. Go for a drive or out to eat with a good friend.

So often I see caregivers who end up burning out because they forgot cardinal rule number one: Care for the caregiver! Taking care of yourself isn’t selfish, it’s smart.

I know the holidays don’t look anything like what you or any of us want this year, and that’s ok. Do what you need to do to make things easier for you and your loved ones, and let someone else handle the big stuff.