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Mental wellness tips for cancer survivors during the holidays

A beautiful African American mother with cancer and her son celebrate Christmas Day together

The holiday season can be an emotional time of both joy and stress. For cancer survivors and their families, it can be a challenge to create cherished memories with loved ones while also dealing with the impact of cancer treatment.

Sylvia Huang, Ph.D., director of UAB Medicine’s Psycho-Oncology Program, shares some tips for embracing the holiday spirit with gratitude and mental well-being:

  1. Set expectations: The holidays often come with many expectations, and there’s natural pressure to recreate the best memories of years past. However, this year may be different due to various limitations or personal preferences. It’s okay to acknowledge your feelings – it’s entirely normal. Establish the basic facts of what you can and can’t do and what truly matters when celebrating the holidays. “Once you’ve had a conversation about how this year will be different yet equally festive, it will take some pressure off everyone involved,” Huang said. This especially applies to letting children know what to expect.
  2. Communicate boundaries: Patients and their families may feel that they to meet the expectations of extended family members. Huang suggests being open and vulnerable with those close to you about your plans to scale down, stay home, or celebrate differently this year. You might be surprised to find that they are not disappointed and may instead offer extra help and support. Either way, maintaining boundaries is crucial for your well-being. Consider questions like:
    • How far am I willing and able to travel?
    • Should I adjust my usual holiday eating habits?
    • Where is the most festive place to celebrate this year?
    • Which relatives do I want to spend time with?
    • Do I have the energy to decorate, and if not, can I seek extra help?
    • Should I opt for virtual celebrations?
  3. Embrace new traditions: Even if things are different, it can be an opportunity for psychological flexibility and to establish new traditions. This may mean new decorations, dates, locations, menus, gift exchanges, or the size of gatherings. Perhaps you’ll choose to have a holiday game night instead of an all-day celebration. Maybe you’ll connect with loved ones virtually instead of traveling. “Embracing new traditions will help you capture the essence of the holidays in fresh, revitalizing ways without feeling overwhelmed,” Huang said.
  4. Practice self-care: Even when everything seems perfectly arranged, the holidays can still be disruptive. Huang emphasizes that self-care is the cornerstone of psychological well-being, especially during this busy time of the year. Continue to engage in activities that make you feel good – personal hygiene, journaling, listening to music, maintaining a healthy diet and exercise routine, and activities or rituals that have personal meaning. “During the holidays, you can rely on the healthy habits you’ve cultivated to rejuvenate and sustain you,” she said.
  5. Connect with your spirituality: Many holiday traditions are deeply rooted in faith and spirituality. According to Huang, finding a deeper meaning through prayer, meditation, or other spiritual practices may help ease mental and emotional suffering, creating a sense of centeredness and belonging during the holiday season.
  6. Seek support to cope with loneliness: Survivors, their families, and caregivers may experience varying degrees of loneliness and grief during the cancer journey. These feelings can intensify during the holiday season if there are changes in our social circles or family dynamics. Huang encourages staying connected with one’s current social network and remaining open to seeking additional support. “Professional counseling and support groups can be a great source of support,” she said. “We are here to help you create a safe space and process a range of feelings associated with holidays.”
  7. Express gratitude: Making a deliberate effort to express gratitude to those who are with you on this journey can be inspiring and uplifting. Counting your blessings or jotting down one thing or person you are thankful for can transform your perspective. “We are here to find meaning and joy in the holidays, and our ability to engage with these precious moments can make them truly special,” Huang said. By showing appreciation for the people who accompany us on this path, we can discover profound meaning and joy during the holiday season.

As you head into this holiday season, remember that you are not alone. Through making some smart adjustments and leaning on your support network, you can find strength, joy, and resilience during this special time of the year. Happy holidays!

Cancer survivors and their loved ones are encouraged to reach out to the UAB Supportive Care Psycho-Oncology Program for additional resources and support.

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