Whether you’re preparing to see friends or family or spending the holidays alone, it’s important to take care of your mental health when going through cancer, especially during what can otherwise be a stressful time. Here are a few things to keep in mind to help you make the most of this season when going through cancer, with others and alone.
What we’ll cover in this blog:
How to mentally prepare to talk about cancer
How to spend the holidays at the hospital or alone
How to mentally prepare to talk about cancer
Talking about cancer can, for some, feel taboo, which is why people often don’t know how to respond to someone sharing their cancer diagnosis (which is why we’re here to change that). Though cancer shouldn’t be something to be afraid of talking about, going through cancer can mean feeling alone, misunderstood, and isolated when opening up about a cancer diagnosis, which isn’t great for mental health. Whether it be because of insensitive responses or awkwardness, bringing up cancer can get uncomfortable.
Here are a few things to help prepare for talking about cancer during the holidays and improve your mental health.
Give yourself space to process how it went in between social gatherings
Rather than filling your schedule with one social gathering after another (or none at all), try and plan in a bit of space between social gatherings to process how it went. Whether it goes well or not, people usually need time to process their emotions, be them the nerves at play when anticipating bringing up a cancer diagnosis, or if it ends up feeling uncomfortable after you’ve talked about it.
Maybe it helps for you to journal about it or share your story with others who know what it’s like on the War On Cancer app. Or, take a walk outside to get some fresh air. Maybe watch your favorite movie if you need a distraction and simply need to turn off for a bit. Or, make a dinner you like (that still tastes good) or get take-out you know you’ll enjoy from your local place.
Not quite sure what to eat? Listen to our podcast episode about food and nutrition if you need some ideas on what to eat when going through cancer.
Know that whatever the result, experiencing cancer, for you and for loved ones, isn’t an easy task and it’s nothing to beat yourself up about. Listen to this conversation with psychologist, Dag Härdfeldt, on what happens in the mind going through cancer or how to better listen to a loved one with cancer.
Share your experience with a friend – before for advice or after to vent
You might be more of an external processor, in which case, it could help to discuss how to bring up your cancer with a loved one, or someone who may even know the people that you’ll bring up your cancer to. Talk to them before or after or both, depending on if you want advice or need to vent. Share your discomforts, nerves, and thoughts – getting them out there can help lift your burden and put things into perspective.
If you’re not sure who to turn to, share your story with others who are with you in the War On Cancer app who are going through similar situations during this time of year. You’re not alone, there’s always someone who understands.
If you’re trying to break news to your loved ones about a poor prognosis this Christmas, check out this insight from psychologist Dag Härdfedlt about how to approach this.
Only say yes to social circles that won’t negatively impact your mental health
Oftentimes, the holiday season comes with pressure to hang out with family, neighbors, friends, basically everyone. This year, of all years, feel that pressure lift naturally, since people will be staying home isolating, or only celebrating with a small number of people. You’re in the same boat, whether or not you have cancer. So, use it to your advantage. If you only want to meet family, for example, do that. Or, if you’d prefer to meet one friend over Christmas, do that. Don’t feel pressure to meet any and everybody if you’re tired of having your cancer diagnosis be a potential topic of conversation.
Whatever you decide, make sure you’re prioritizing your physical and mental health, and keep your immune system safe when meeting up with others. Consult your doctor and health care professional if worried or listen in on War On Cancer podcast episode 2 where Oncology Pharmacist Amydee Morris talks about compromised immunes systems due to cancer treatment.
If you’re currently experiencing side effects of cancer treatment like changing taste buds or loss of appetite, meet up with a couple people where you know you don’t have to take the lead on food, there are options for you to pick and choose, or where you feel comfortable expressing your preferences. If you meet up online, problem solved. This may help take a layer of pressure off the whole shabang.
This year is the year to celebrate with physical distance, skip the small talk, and spend time with people you feel most yourself with, knowing they’ll be less likely to pry or be awkward about cancer.
Don’t let unhelpful comments get to you or your mental health
Maybe you end up going to a social gathering but leave feeling more discouraged, disconnected, or distant from those you were surrounded by. Keep in mind that many people don’t know how to talk about cancer (which is why you should invite your loved ones to the War On Cancer app, so they can learn from you and the community about helpful ways to approach cancer). For example, some may not know how to show empathy in a situation that they’ve never experienced, others might be triggered from previous or current personal experiences with cancer. Those, of course, aren’t excuses, but merely context to why something was said that was unhelpful in the cancer conversation.
Remember that anything that is said that is unhelpful or potentially hurtful to you was most probably not intended to hurt you and that it was a result of misjudgement or lack of knowledge of others involved. If you feel up for it and comfortable with the person, you can use the opportunity to shed some light on how it really is or how you would prefer something to be addressed. This may bring you a sense of achievement and empowerment in turning the conversation around – in an effort to inform, never to hurt.
If you don’t feel like addressing the issue then and there, try and distance yourself from unhelpful comments and remember that everyone is fighting their own battle. Again, take some time to process (see first tip above) and use coping mechanisms, such as journaling how you feel, talking to someone who understands, or doing something creative or physical that gives you energy.
In the end, it’s not you. You are not your cancer diagnosis and you’re simply going through something that is very difficult that everybody may not know how to respond to. It does not define who you are. Knowing this doesn’t always help. But reminding yourself of it and accepting it, even if you can’t always feel it, may.
How to spend the holidays at the hospital or alone
Planned surgeries or treatments don’t come to halt because of Christmas (though, they may be affected so make sure to be in the loop about your treatment, medication, and potential changes before the holidays so that you’re prepared and in control). Some of you might be spending the holidays in hospital or alone because of treatment. Fret not! Though it may feel different, find comfort in the fact that Christmas is different for everyone this year. Here are some tips to make the days feel a bit brighter, and hopefully less dreadful.
Make sure to check out our these concrete tips to cope with spending the holidays in isolation as well.
Improve your mental health by engaging in relaxing activities that bring you joy
It may sound funny, but in our performance-driven world, we often have to allow ourselves time to relax and tell ourselves that it’s okay to relax. Time in the hospital or in forced isolation may not feel very relaxing because a.) it may not be and b.) odds are you didn’t choose it, and that can be frustrating. However, it may help to shift your mindset to finding ways to enjoy it or make the most of it, even if you feel limited or if relaxing looks differently than it used to pre-cancer.
Here come some suggestions, take them or leave them. Watch your favorite movie or a tv-show that you know no one else wants to watch but you’re intrigued by. If you’re at home, make some food you know you enjoy, play some music that lifts your spirits, and don’t be afraid to turn up the music and get funky. If you play an instrument, pick it up and dabble a bit. Or, self-teach yourself a simple trick or hobby that you’ve been interested in (you can learn so much from Youtube tutorials). Sleeping can also work wonders.
Want to eat holiday treats but have heard something about sugar feeding cancer? Listen to this War On Cancer podcast episode about the truth about sugar and cancer.
In regards to our mental health, it’s important that we don’t always rely on outside distractions to bring us joy. Take some time to reflect on this past year and the year going forward (however uncomfortable), or spend time reading a book you’ve always put on hold because there’s never been time. Get in touch with a friend or family member that’s been on your mind, or look through old pictures if that’s a positive experience for you.
Make the most of the interactions you have with others and yourself
If you’re spending time at the hospital, make the most of the interactions you have with others, whether that be a nurse, another patient, child, dog. Whether at home or in the hospital, make virtual plans that you can look forward to, or connect with others on War On Cancer and share your “holiday” with others who get what you’re going through. Smile to the mailman and say hello to anyone you meet when on your daily walk and look into people’s eyes. It has the capacity of bringing you out of your own head.
Sometimes the smallest moments shared can have the greatest impact, however short-lived the interaction is.
Also, try and be a good friend to yourself. Be kind to yourself. Don’t beat yourself up about not being productive or being able to do things like you did before cancer. Have a self-care day if that makes you feel good. We are our own worst critics, so take this time to show yourself grace and give yourself the freedom to enjoy your own presence, whatever shape that takes.
Split up your day to feel more in control of your time and emotions
If you feel time is dragging out or you’re over relaxing, try to set small, achievable goals or things to look forward to that break up your day. These don’t have to be difficult goals or too many – it’s about the feeling of accomplishment that can boost your mood and make you feel like you’ve spent your day valuably. This could be doing something creative, making virtual plans, writing a card, or taking the time to catch up on things that you’ve put off. Then, reward yourself for having accomplished that, which may make your relaxing feel better rather than something you dread. Treat yourself to a good meal or hot chocolate or something non-food that gets a smile on your face.
Have a goal before lunch and a goal before dinner if that works for you. Try and make it outside at least once a day, if only for a short time. Moderate exercise such as going on a daily walk or doing an online class adapted to your needs can help you feel stronger and improve your mental health because you’ve accomplished something. Here’s an online exercise class that you can follow along with on Youtube, hosted by Lindsy, a breast cancer survivor and member of the War On Cancer app, that has been adapted to when you’re going through treatment.
It’s about the balance of having goals that signals your brain that you’re doing something good, and grace, giving yourself the love you need to get through a lonelier season.
Connect with others who are also experiencing cancer
We are social beings and need each other, and however lonely we may feel, there’s always someone who knows what it’s like or has been through something similar. For example, connect with others on the War On Cancer app who may also be going through a different holiday season than they anticipated.
Most often, the connection with others runs deeper than a cancer diagnosis that initially connected you. Perhaps you have the same things in common or are experiencing similar emotions. Whatever may be, know that even though you may be physically alone, you’re not socially alone, we’ve got your back.