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Managing Breast Cancer During The Holidays

Dr. Debra Barton offers tips for those affected by breast cancer and their families and friends.

While the holidays are a time to celebrate with family and friends, the season can quickly go from joyful to stressful for women and men with breast cancer. Whether trying to juggle holiday responsibilities or struggling with social expectations when feeling anything but festive, you and your loved ones can find this time of year challenging and end up feeling overwhelmed, disconnected or depressed.

Confronting a serious illness or a change in health, even if things are going well, can change a person’s perspectives, priorities and energy level. Sometimes people just need a little more quiet thinking time. Other times, they need a little more companionship or closeness with those important to them. Whenever you go through truly challenging situations, even when things are looking up, you may experience losses along the way that can lead to a need to grieve. It is normal and healthy to grieve losses throughout life, and it is natural to feel disappointed and frustrated with unexpected turns and journeys.

Three key words to remember for both people diagnosed with cancer and their family/significant others are acceptance, communication, and flexibility. If you or someone close to you is going through or recently completed treatment, consider these tips for helping through the holidays.

For People with Cancer:

Accept where you are. If you are feeling tired, more introspective and less social than usual but don’t believe you are depressed, know those feelings are OK. There is a tendency for people to have expectations of themselves and others when going through something challenging. They think they should be behaving and feeling a certain way and when they aren’t meeting those expectations, it is yet another source of stress.  Try to let go of expectations.  Allow yourself to be where you are emotionally and physically.      

However, if you feel you are having trouble coping with a specific issue, let your health care provider know and ask to see a mental health professional. Seeking help is not a weakness. Being able to assess your needs and give yourself permission to feel and do what you need to do is a sign of strength. It sets a model for your children, family and friends on how to cope effectively. 

Communicate your needs and feelings. Be open about what you need and what you want the holiday experience to be. It is not helpful to hold in feelings of disappointment about a loved one’s behavior or a lack of verbal or emotional support. Instead, talk about your feelings in a non-defensive way using phrases like “I am feeling…,” “I would appreciate it if you could…,”  or “When you do…, I feel….” No one can read your mind. Hoping that a spouse or friend will do something or behave a certain way because deep down you really want or need them to is a waste of precious energy. Communicating what you need is more efficient and more likely to yield the results you want. We each have our own way of coping and unique desires about how we would like to be supported. Communicating your needs is the only way friends and family will know how best to support you.

Keep your calendar open. A party or event in the future may sound fun but, when the day comes, it may not be how you need to spend the time. Accept invitations tentatively.  Express the desire to join in, but be sure to communicate that other needs may take priority when the time comes. 

Be flexible with traditions. Talk with your family about what the holiday season will hold. Discuss what is really important to do this season and what you feel comfortable letting go of this one time. What new traditions may you want to explore? Make plans so you can take advantage of when energy levels are at their highest, but be sure to space things out and prioritize. Cut out any activities that aren’t real priorities. For instance, don’t stress about holiday cards. You can send a new year’s letter later in January or after the holidays to catch up with dear friends. 

For Family and Friends:

Accept what your loved one/friend tells you. It is important that you listen, respect and accept where they are and what they need this holiday season. Try not to read more into it than is there.   Allow them to be who they are right at the moment.

Foster an open environment and encourage non-judgmental communication. Make sure your loved one/friend knows they have permission to tell you what they feel, think and want. Let them know you care and are there for them and, if possible, allow them to set the pace for the holiday. Ask them how you can help with the holiday responsibilities to lessen their load.  

Be flexible with traditions and particularly with expectations. Make decisions as a family based on everyone’s needs. Then when declining invitations or events, clearly state that the family has decided on other plans rather than make it all about the person who is not feeling well. Doing so will create an environment where your loved one/friend will feel comfortable being honest with where they are and what they need. 

Try to be comfortable with silence. Listen without always feeling that you have to respond. Sometimes a caring listener is what the person needs the most. Also avoid the urge to cheerlead. Lending presence is important. Be with your loved one/friend and if they feel like talking, then listen. There is no need to try to “fix” anything, unless specifically asked for advice. Saying things like, “I don’t know what it is like to be in your shoes right now, but I want you to know I am here for you.  Please let me know what I can do.” Just listening and being supportive with presence can go long way, especially during such a time of year that can be difficult during the best of circumstances.

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