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  • Writer's pictureSurviving Breast Cancer

Breast Cancer and the Holidays

This year continues to fly by, and it’s hard to believe that, for those of us in the US, Thanksgiving is already upon us! From there, we slide into the rush of the various winter holidays, from now through New Year’s Day. They always seem to sneak up on us. While the holidays can be a time of joy, celebration, connection, and rest, for many they can also bring a lot of stress with travel, shopping, family and social commitments. For those with a breast cancer diagnosis, this can be quite daunting.

For so many of us, the holidays are a time to reconnect with family and friends that we might not see as frequently during the rest of the year. While well-meaning, friends and families may question you about your treatment, or recovery process, please recognize that this can be emotionally draining. It’s your own choice as to how much you want to talk about it (or if you want to talk about it at all) and it’s important to set (and stick to) your own boundaries about how much you wish to share.

This year, our collective holiday plans might look different than just a few short years ago. Some might be ready to go all out and “make up for lost time” getting back to the traditions and gatherings we had postponed in 2020. Others might still be wary of travel or large gatherings. Again, it’s important to set your own personal boundaries, and participate in what you feel most comfortable with. There’s no need to run yourself ragged, saying yes to every holiday party invitation. It’s fine to say, “I’d love to see you, but this is such a busy time of year. Let’s meet up in January.”

Below we share several articles on how to take care of yourself during the holiday season so that it really can be “the most wonderful time of the year” for you.

“I think it all hit me when I was mid-air, on an airplane and heading south to visit my family for Thanksgiving. These feelings always come at the most inopportune time don’t they? I was doing what everyone usually does around Thanksgiving:

-My bags were packed,

-I was visiting family,

-The holiday cheer was in the air, and 30,000 feet somewhere over New York, it hit me, ‘I had cancer,’ wait no, ‘I survived cancer!’

As if somehow, I forgot what a tumultuous year I had endured; my hair was growing back, my energy level was increasing, I was back to work etc. I was living the ‘normal life’. But out of the blue, mid-air, I started to panic. My mind started to race and all I could focus on was the millions of ‘what if’ questions." Read More.

“Thanksgiving is about the traditions we’ve formed around the table. This year, I wanted to share some new ideas for how we can celebrate the holidays with a healthy spin as we continue to fuel our bodies and steel them against breast cancer!” Read More.

There isn’t a one-size-fits-all strategy. No matter what your situation, i.e., coming to terms with a recent diagnosis, going through treatment, or trying to adapt to a ‘new normal’, here are a few tips that may help you successfully navigate the holiday season and enjoy it!

Be Kind to Yourself

Accept that things may be different from your past holidays. You may not feel up to some time-honored traditions. That’s okay. Sure, it’s frustrating not to do everything you did before, but try not to beat yourself up about it. You’ve had a challenging time. Be gentle with your post-cancer self.

Communicate Your Needs

Your health comes first. If your breast cancer makes it difficult to plan and implement the things you usually do for the holidays, let your loved ones know. These are people who love you and want the best for you. They will be happy to fill in for you.

Brace Yourself for Crazy Cancer Comments

Patients and survivors can be subjected to stupid cancer comments at any time of the year. Well-meaning friends and relatives may take it to the next level during the holidays. When your distant aunt brings a gift basket of ‘cancer-curing’ treats for you, your first instinct may be to ask her why she isn’t sharing this with the experts at the Mayo Clinic. You will feel much better if you just thank her and move on (trust us on this). Read More.

Abigail shares her experience of having MBC during the holidays. “Since 2017, when I was diagnosed with Stage IV Metastatic Breast Cancer (MBC), I’ve started to see holidays differently. I vividly recall the first celebrations following my diagnosis when I struggled with both wanting to go overboard in making memories and also wanting to simply withdraw from everything. The thought that this holiday, this birthday, this celebration, this time, this will be the last time, is always in the back of my mind. I still find myself staring at the people I love, during holidays or otherwise, trying to memorize their faces, fixing the memories in my brain so … what? So that I will remember after I die? How do you reconcile wanting to celebrate and be present with the very real fear that you will be erased, replaced, become irrelevant in the lives of those you care about the most? This anticipatory grief amongst the very real festivities of the holidays is mind boggling/numbing/blowing. ... Absent a crystal ball (and I need one of those), I think we have to make the best decisions with what we have to work with, right now. I think we have to focus on the knowns to make decisions, not make ourselves crazy with attempting to contemplate the unknowns. I think we have to be able to take responsibility for the things we can influence and just pitch the rest.” Read More.


From Around The Web

“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.” Read More.

“As you consider your holiday plans for this year, it’s important to understand your level of risk based on your age, health, and medical conditions. We know that the risk of severe illness if you get COVID-19 increases with age. The CDC also says that people who have certain medical conditions, including a current cancer diagnosis, may still be at risk for COVID-19 even if they are fully vaccinated and have received a booster. Likewise, people who are receiving breast cancer treatments that can weaken the immune system, such as chemotherapy, also may still be at risk for the virus. It is less clear whether a history of cancer increases your risk, but the CDC says it may. ... It’s a good idea to talk with your doctor about your level of COVID-19 risk and the precautions you should continue taking, especially if you plan to gather with friends and family for the holidays.” Read More.

A breast cancer survivor shares her experience of being diagnosed right before the holiday season, the feeling of obligation to make sure her young son still was happy during this time, and the tips she’s learned after that first year. “I was depleted from several months of chemo and surgeries. I was receiving my last radiation treatment the day before Thanksgiving. The mental and physical exhaustion was real. I wrote out a list of all the holiday things I usually did, from shopping to hosting. Making a list helped me parse out what I really wanted to do, what I had to do, and what I considered too stressful. ... [Then] I did hardcore calendar planning. There were the things that had to happen (medical appointments and my son’s holiday recital, for example). And then there were the things I wanted to do that brought me joy. ... I took the less is more approach and simply pared down. When it came to attending events or hosting, I just did less of all of it. I realized many holiday expectations get wrapped up in the expectations of others. Those things didn’t need to be my expectations, so I let them go. I now feel good about curating a simple holiday season that fits my life as I go.” Read More.

“‘I feel pressure from others and from myself to make Christmas the best for my kids,’ said Brandie Langer, a 35-year-old breast cancer survivor and mother of three who went through mastectomy, chemo, radiation and reconstruction three years ago. ‘People ask me to do things or help out and I love helping, but there’s only so much energy to go around.’

Dr. Karen Syrjala, co-director of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center Survivorship Program, said one of the biggest challenges for cancer patients and survivors is to think in terms of how the holidays are now as opposed to how they used to be or “should be” in our minds.

‘It’s easy to get caught up in that “I’ve always done these things” mindset,’ she said. ‘But survivorship can be an opportunity to rethink your priorities and go forward rather than carrying around the baggage of expectation. It’s a chance to focus on the meaning of the holiday rather than the mass consumption.’” Read More.

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