The crowd looks up as this year's tree is lit for the first time. Photo by Scott Ball.
The crowd looks up as this year's tree is lit for the first time. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

The holidays are a time when friends and family gather to celebrate traditions and make new memories. For cancer patients and their loved ones, the season is challenging. Texas Oncology’s community-based care approach helps patients stay at home during the holidays, when support from family and friends is particularly crucial. Here are some tips to help your family celebrate the holidays while coping with cancer.

Be Present

There is no better gift than quality time. Rather than dwelling on a loved one’s cancer diagnosis, enjoy the special moments of togetherness the holidays bring. Easy activities include board and card games, holiday movie marathons, or sharing family stories.

Adjust Expectations

Finding a good balance of down time and social time is key to helping your loved one enjoy the season. Cancer patients may not be up to a hectic, stressful schedule during the holidays. Instead, seek a flexible routine that includes necessary down time. Offer to host the family’s holiday gathering, propose a potluck meal or ordering take-out food, or suggest alternate sleeping arrangements for out-of-town family and friends to avoid the stress of hosting overnight guests.

Know What to Say (And What Not to Say)

Avoid commenting on appearance, changes in mood, or energy level. Rather, ask open-ended questions about well-being and offer support. Your loved one may want to share a lot about his or her cancer journey or may not wish to discuss it at all. Give your loved one the freedom to do either.

  • Say this…
    • “How are you feeling?”
    • “I’ve been thinking about you.”
    • “Is there anything I can do to help make you feel more comfortable?”
  • Not this…
    • “You’ve lost so much weight!”
    • “You’re losing your hair!”
    • “I read about this new treatment on the internet…”
    • “My friend had the same type of cancer and he/she is in remission now.”

Give a Thoughtful Gift

When purchasing gifts for those affected by cancer, look for items that are comforting, distracting, or entertaining. Examples include crossword or Sudoku puzzles, adult coloring books, gift cards to favorite restaurants, cozy blankets, meditation books, massage or spa treatments, funny movies, and personal notes of encouragement. Avoid giving anything containing synthetic perfumes that might trigger nausea; plants or flowers which harbor fungal spores that place patients at risk of infection; or sweets because many patients have dietary restrictions.

Beware of Germs

‘Tis the season for the flu! With more cold and flu cases, increased travel, and more visitors than usual, this time of year can be especially hard for someone with a weakened immune system due to cancer treatment. Encourage thorough and frequent hand-washing among all family members and guests.

Consider Meals Carefully

Cancer treatment frequently changes food tastes. Ask in advance if there are specific food aversions or needs to consider when preparing a meal. As a general rule, stick to holiday meal staples like turkey, potatoes, and green beans. Avoid foods with strong smells. If the holiday meals are traditionally prepared by your loved one with cancer, suggest an alternative or divvy up responsibilities.

By making some adjustments to hectic holiday schedules, family members, and friends can help those affected by cancer enjoy important traditions and cherish their time with loved ones. For more information about navigating the holidays when a loved one has cancer or to find fun and simple ways to keep spirits high, including a downloadable list of family-friendly card games, click here.  

Thomas Fisher, M.D., is a medical oncologist and medical director of Texas Oncology–San Antonio.