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Managing the Holidays With a Long-Term Illness

Stringing the lights, storming the malls, and all those parties! Imagine facing these holiday demands while you’re tired, sick, sad, and worried: for people with cancer or other life-threatening illnesses, this time of year can often be far from merry.

We spoke to Leora Lowenthal, LICSW-OSW-C, manager of the oncology social work program at BIDMC, and Hester Hill Schnipper, LICSW, OSW-C, for advice on rethinking holiday traditions and celebrations to capture more peace in the face of a disheartening diagnosis.

Maintain Your Energy
“We all think we have to do more around the holidays than we really do,” Hill Schnipper says. “Whatever your traditions have been, think about the parts that are most important and decide what you can delete or delegate.”

Some holiday traditions can be modified to make them less taxing. For instance, if you love shopping, avoid the stores when they’re most crowded in favor of a quieter time, like a weekday morning. Or, simply shop online.

Lowenthal also suggests planning in advance for ways to restore your energy during holiday events. For example, if you’re attending a party at a family member’s house, carve out a quiet place away from the crowd to lie down or just catch some down time.

“It doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing approach,” she says. “Focus on what really matters. Treat your energy as something that is incredibly valuable, and don’t feel bad about asking for special considerations.”

Ask for Help
You may feel like you’re the driving force behind many of your traditions. Maybe you’ve always enjoyed the role of party planner or head chef. But if you’re not feeling up to it this year, fear not—you don’t have to do it all yourself.

“It’s okay to hand off the baton,” Lowenthal says.

“Asking for help is something that most of us aren’t very good at,” Hill Schnipper adds. “It’s often helpful to keep a list of tasks. Then, when help is offered, you’re able to move a specific, important task off your plate.”

Manage What You Eat
“Issues around food and drink are stressful during the holidays,” Lowenthal says.

Cancer treatment often goes hand-in-hand with appetite loss, changes in one’s sense of taste, a need for specialized diets, frequent nausea, or alcohol restrictions. Other long-term illnesses come with their own diet challenges. People recently diagnosed with severe heart conditions or diabetes may face new diet restrictions.

“We encourage our patients not to leave their good habits at the door just because it’s the holidays,” Lowenthal says.

It’s fine to indulge a little, but she advises against throwing caution to the wind.

Decide What to Say ... and What Not to Say
Coping with serious illness—especially during the holidays—can be a source of sadness. It’s helpful to think about whom you can confide in, vs. when you’d rather leave things unsaid.

“I often encourage people to feel free to acknowledge their feelings,” Hill Schnipper says. “Find the people and places where you can talk about feeling sad and worried … a support group or friends, or others who are going through the same thing and are more likely to understand.”

“This holiday season may be the first time your family is seeing you since your diagnosis,” Lowenthal adds. “Think about whether you want your illness to be a topic of conversation. What, if anything, do you want to tell people?”

Lowenthal says it’s okay to decide when it’s appropriate to discuss your diagnosis. Having a plan about how much you’ll discuss can help take the pressure off in the moment.

The holidays can also be a good time to reconnect with your community—close family and friends, neighbors, your faith community. No matter the group, it’s important to stay connected and communicate in some way to prevent feelings of isolation.

Watch Your Wallet
As anyone facing prolonged treatment knows, health care can get extremely expensive. Add in the impact of reduced work hours, paying a sitter, etc. and finances can become challenging.

Give yourself permission to scale back. You may be used to spending a certain amount on each family member, but it’s important to be realistic.

“Speak to a social worker where you receive your care,” Hill Schnipper advises. At any time of year, financial resources are available to help.

The Cancer Center at BIDMC has a variety of support services available for patients and their loved ones.

Source: Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center