Ready or not, the holidays are just around the corner. Each year, the holiday season afford us an opportunity to look more deeply into life, take less for granted, reset priorities, renew spiritual faith, or connect more deeply with loved ones and strangers. Even the healthiest people can feel overwhelmed or overstimulated by the frantic pace, unrealistically high expectations and the sensory overload of holiday music, advertisements, food and drink, decorations and displays, and social obligations.

People with cancer and other serious illnesses, along with their caregivers, often feel out of sync with the celebratory atmosphere at this time of year and sometimes have unrealistic expectations of themselves and others. They may look at the holidays with ambivalence and even trepidation. The prospect of a new year may raise questions about whether the cancer will come back next year, or how to handle the situation if it does return. Those in cancer treatment and their caregivers may wonder if they have the stamina to get through the holidays and another round of treatment. Those who once avidly shopped and entertained might now dread the prospect of doing either.

Even visiting loved ones for the first time since undergoing treatment can be comforting and heartwarming for some while for others it can feel awkward and provoke anxiety. Dealing with others’ reactions to a new diagnosis or changed appearance can be stressful.

Of course there are financial concerns as well. Cancer treatment is expensive, unmanageably so for those who have no medical insurance or who are underinsured, or who find themselves unable to work. Those under financial stress face difficult choices about what, if anything, they can afford to buy when it comes to giving gifts.

If you or someone you love is facing cancer, consider the following suggestions to ease potential holiday stressors:

  • Allow feelings to happen. Life-threatening illnesses change the world as we know it. It is natural to feel sad, angry, despairing, confused, numb or lonely. Ignoring and suppressing our feelings and pretending to be cheerful is likely to make the holidays more difficult.
  • If there are concerns about whether the usual holiday plans are right this year, it is okay to break with tradition. Allow change in where, when, how and with whom you spend the holiday. Let others know if the energy or the financial means to buy presents are just not there.
  • Spontaneity is great. However, having a plan, even if we decide to change it, is likely to provide a greater sense of control. It is then less likely that we will feel isolated or blind-sided by others’ expectations and decisions.
  • Try to get enough rest, nourishment and exercise. Be mindful of alcohol consumption; alcohol is a depressant and can worsen the mood. Limit sugary treats as they too can leave us feeling depleted and depressed.
  • If there is someone we know affected by cancer, offer the gift of listening and care. Let them lead when it comes to holiday plans. A phone call, card or email can also make a meaningful difference. To offer help, be specific, such as asking if we can pick up things at the grocery store. That is more helpful than, “Let me know if there is anything I can do.”
  • At a time when so many around us are caught in an endless round of buying presents, give the gift of presence. Pause several times a day to refresh and just be.
  • If you need practical support, reach out to understanding loved ones. They may be eager to help but not know how. Let them know what you need, whether it is a cooked meal, help with shopping or hosting, prayers, or kind and supportive listening.

In a world that extols health and vigor, and promotes the illusion that life is controllable, the experience of cancer sometimes brings with it feelings of isolation and stigma. The antidote to loneliness is connection. To the extent you can, open yourself to others’ attention and affection. If you have energy, you can offer care to someone else, whether they are a loved one or a stranger. Compassionate action helps us to transcend difficult circumstances and enter more fully into our shared human condition.

Kevin Berrill, MSW, LCSW, is a clinical social worker at Ann’s Place, a community-based cancer support agency in Danbury. Connect at