Cancer Caregivers: How to Manage ‘Happy’ During the Holidays
‘Tis the season of holiday cheer, when homes are festooned with lights, dining tables are piled high with favorite dishes and gifts change hands at a breathless pace.
Yet, families and caregivers of people with cancer may view the holidays as a particularly challenging time, when they might feel as though they have to live up to the ideal of merry and bright, when they—and those they’re tending—typically don’t feel that way.
“Cancer caregivers face the job of creating normalcy in a decidedly not-normal situation,” said Jan-Kees Van Der Gaag, MSW, LCSW, clinical social work supervisor for the Patient and Family Support Program at Cedars-Sinai Cancer. “To overcome that hurdle, caregivers and their loved ones might need to compromise and “agree that ‘good enough’ is preferable to ‘perfect.’”
That can be especially difficult when friends and family may not know the health situation, or even when they do, signal that everyone should remain upbeat, said Scott A. Irwin, MD, PhD, director of the Patient and Family Support Program and professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neurosciences at Cedars-Sinai.
Still, even with a cancer diagnosis, it’s still possible to enjoy the season. The first step, according to Van Der Gaag, is for cancer caregivers and patients to discuss openly what they value during the holidays — sitting at a family dinner, home decorating or gift-buying — and determine how to achieve that, on good days or bad.
Van Der Gaag and Irwin’s tips for making the most of the holidays while caring for someone with cancer:
- Arrange time for yourself during the holidays – After you’ve assessed your holiday priorities and goals and those of the person with cancer, ask that person how they would like you to participate in holiday festivities. They often will want you to enjoy yourself, so may say, “I don’t want to go to the party Saturday, but you go,” or “Take some time to shop for gifts.” Listen to them. If the person with cancer cannot be left alone, ask another family member or a friend to take over for a couple of hours, if possible.
- Resist the urge to be the “Superhuman Caregiver” who makes the holidays perfect – Conserve energy for caregiving by letting go of perfection. Perhaps you skip the outdoor decorations or hang a few lights in the living room instead of fully decorating a tree. Patients often feel empowered when they can help caregivers handle only what they realistically can manage. “Evoke the holiday without going full-blown, if it’s not realistic,” Van Der Gaag said. “For example, place scented candles around the house and provide a soft, holiday-themed blanket, consistent with the holiday goals you have set together.”
- Rearrange holiday dinners so that everyone can attend – If the person with cancer is too fatigued at the dinner hour, arrange for the feast to begin earlier. Similarly, if the holiday dinner falls three days after chemotherapy treatment—when nausea and lack of appetite may be at their height—move the dinner to an earlier or later date. “Work with what’s realistic, not what’s imposed by tradition,” Irwin said. “Make it your own.”
- Let the person with cancer off the hook – If the loved one usually hosts and cooks the holiday meal, ask another family member to host it or make reservations at a local hotel or restaurant. If the person with cancer really wants to have the event at home, arrange for guests to arrive early to help clean the home, cook the meal, and clean up afterward. That way, the loved one is free to participate when and how they want to and based on what they can manage.
- Set boundaries with well-meaning friends and family – Tell those who want to visit whether today is a good day or not. If it’s a good day, set the parameters of the visit, including how to know if the visit needs to end early.
- Help with unusual gift suggestions for an ill loved one -- You might consider requesting atypical but necessary gifts, such as food, personal care necessities or cash. Also, suggest the gift of playing cards with or reading to the patient to free up the caregiver for an hour or two. “These may not be glamorous, but they may be the most helpful gifts,” Van Der Gaag said.