Managing the Holidays with a Long-Term Illness

By Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center Correspondent

Stringing the lights, storming the malls, and all those parties! The holidays place many demands on us. Imagine facing them while you’re tired, sick, sad and worried. For people with cancer or other life-threatening illnesses, this time of year can often be far from merry.

“The question is, ‘how do we cope with all the emotional and physical difficulties during holiday events that center around joy?’” says Leora Lowenthal, LICSW, OSW-C, senior clinical social worker at the Beth Israel Deaconess Cancer Center in Needham.
Here, Lowenthal and Hester Hill Schnipper, LICSW, OSW-C, manager of oncology social work at BIDMC, share advice on rethinking holiday traditions and celebrations to capture more peace and cheer in the face of a disheartening diagnosis.

Maintain your energy.

“We all think we have to do more around the holidays than we really do,” says Hill Schnipper. “Whatever your traditions have been, think about the parts that are most important and decide what you can delete or delegate.”

While Hill Schnipper offers a reminder that you don’t have to deck every hall, she also suggests that some holiday traditions can be modified to make them less taxing. For instance, if you love shopping, avoid the stores when they’re most crowded in favor of a quieter time, like a weekday morning. Or, simply shop online.

“People often worry because their energy isn’t as high as normal when they’re sick,” says Lowenthal.  To help address these concerns, she suggests planning in advance for ways to restore your energy during holiday events.  For example, if you’re attending a party at a family member’s house, carve out a quiet place away from the crowd to lie down or just catch some down time.

When it comes to celebrating, Lowenthal says it doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing approach.

“Focus on what really matters.  Treat your energy as something that is incredibly valuable, and don’t feel bad about asking for special considerations,” she says.

Ask for help.

You may feel like you’re the driving force behind many of your traditions. Maybe you’ve always enjoyed the role of chief party planner or head chef.  But if you’re not feeling up to it this year, fear not – you don’t have to do it all yourself.

“You may have felt responsible for a particular tradition in the past, but sometimes it’s okay to hand off the baton,” Lowenthal says.

“Asking for help is something that most of us aren’t very good at that,” says Hill Schnipper. She suggests making specific requests when asking for help.  “It’s often helpful to keep a list of tasks you can hand off to someone,” she says.  Then, when help is offered, you’re able to move a specific, important task off your plate.

Decide what to say…and what not to.

Coping with serious illness at any time – especially the holidays – can be a source of sadness. It’s helpful to think about whom you can confide in, versus when you’d rather leave things unsaid.

“I often encourage people to feel free to acknowledge their feelings,” Hill Schnipper says. “Find the people and places where you can talk about feeling sad and worried…a support group or friends, or others who are going through the same thing and are more likely to understand.”

“This holiday season may be the first time your family is seeing you since your diagnosis,” Lowenthal says. “Think about whether you want your illness to be a topic of conversation. What, if anything, do you want to tell people?” Lowenthal says it’s okay to decide when it’s appropriate to discuss your diagnosis. Having a plan about how much you’ll discuss can help take the pressure off in the moment.

The holidays can also be a good time to reconnect with your community – close family and friends, neighbors, faith community. No matter the group, it’s important to stay connected and communicate in some way to prevent feelings of isolation.

Watch your wallet.

As anyone facing prolonged treatment knows, health care can get extremely expensive. Add in the impact of reduced work hours, parking for medical appointments, paying a sitter, and it’s easy to see: this is hardly the best time to throw a fancy party or rack up a holiday shopping tab.

Above all, give yourself permission to scale back.  You may be used to spending a certain amount on each family member, but it’s important to be realistic.

“Speak to a social worker where you receive your care,” Hill Schnipper advises. At any time of year, financial resources are available for those whose treatment has created a challenging financial situation.

Manage what you eat.

Ever been to a holiday party without lots of rich, decadent food?  Nope.

“Issues around food and drink are stressful during the holidays,” Lowenthal says. Cancer treatment often goes hand-in-hand with appetite loss, changes in one’s sense of taste, a need for specialized diets, frequent nausea or alcohol restrictions. Other long-term illnesses come with their own diet challenges. People recently diagnosed with severe heart conditions or diabetes may face new diet restrictions that contradict the way we tend to approach holidays.

“Just because it’s the holidays, don’t leave all your good habits at the door,” Lowenthal says. “During the holidays, we’re sometimes programmed to ignore the things we’re taught are good for us.” It’s fine to indulge a little, but she advises against throwing caution to the wind.

 
Check out these resources.

  • “Coping with the Holidays” event at BID Cancer Center in Needham: Tuesday, December 20, 4:00 to 5:30 p.m. Call 781-453-7576 for information.
  • Look Good Feel Better – a non-medical program that teaches people with cancer to manage the appearance-related side effects of cancer treatment
  • Online cancer support services and support groups – many are offered at BIDMC and the BID Cancer Center in Needham.
  • BIDMC’s online cancer support community

Above content provided by Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. For advice about your medical care, consult your doctor.

Posted December 2016

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