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Coping with an illness or recent diagnosis during the holidays

A VCU Massey Cancer Center social worker shares mindful ways to take on the holiday season.

Mother and son enjoying Christmas in front of their tree (iStock)

A version of this story, focused on patients with a cancer diagnosis, was originally published on VCU Massey Cancer Center’s News Center. It has since been updated to include more patients living with chronic illnesses. 

By Annie Harris 

The holidays are a time of hope and tradition: we gather with family and friends, decorate, cook, entertain and look forward to even better days ahead. But if you’re living with a serious health condition or a recent diagnosis, you may feel out of step with the rest of the world as it enters the holiday season.

Freda Wilkins, a social worker at VCU Massey Cancer Center, has seen the impacts a cancer diagnosis has had on patients during this time of year. 

“I regularly hear from patients who are concerned about the approaching holidays, as they face changes in their body, their energy, their mood or their outlook,” Wilkins said. “It’s also common for people living with cancer to worry about seeing people they might not have seen since before their illness, who could have a lot of questions or, out of sympathy or discomfort, treat you differently.”

While a diagnosis is always difficult to face, coping with an illness during the holidays has special challenges. Wilkins shared these tips and more on mindful ways to take on the season in a recent webinar:

Gather your support system.

Put together a list of family and friends you can count on to listen to your concerns and put a smile on your face. This group will be the people you can call on when life feels stressful.

Ask for help.

If holiday activities and traditions are requiring more of you than you can comfortably give, it is okay to ask for others to step in to take off some of the load: If you typically host a dinner, ask people to bring dishes for a potluck, or suggest an alternate location. Your support system can be called on for meal prep, clean-up or helping with gift wrapping and decorating.

Eat healthy.

This can be especially hard during the holidays, when indulgent food and drinks are seemingly everywhere you look. Try to maintain a balanced diet by giving your body the nutrients it needs, limit sugary foods and alcohol. Plan meals ahead of time if dietary restrictions might impact your ability to eat at an event.

Try something new.

This year could be a time to break your tradition and start something new. If you aren’t up to in-person visits, invite family and friends to video chat or write personal notes to let people know they’re in your thoughts. You could even plan a fun trip to a place you’ve never been.

Be mindful of your emotions.

Emotions are neither good nor bad—like warning lights on your car, feelings are there to remind us that things are going on inside. Feelings like excitement, anticipation and apprehension are normal and expected. Try to be attuned to the joy in happy moments and allow time to cry and reflect in the sad ones. You may be feeling grief for a loved one who’s not here this year or grieving the loss of your health or your hope for this moment. You’re allowed to grieve and to talk about your grief. Find comfort in sharing your feelings with others – like a friend, therapist or spiritual advisor – or simply acknowledging them to yourself without any need to stuff them down or rush into action.

Engage in self-care.

How are you taking care of yourself during this holiday season? In addition to the basics – getting enough sleep, moving your body and getting outside – pursue other activities you enjoy, like cooking, baking, reading, or gardening. Use your creativity to express your experience through writing or drawing. Find what feels good for you and create the space to do that.

Plan and pace.

This is the key to managing the holiday season: Identify the things that are causing you stress (e.g., decorating, entertaining, cooking) and plan how you can scale back. Choose the things that are most important to you, make a list and then pace yourself to complete that list. Think about scheduling activities for the times of day when you have the most energy.

Consult with your healthcare team.

They are in this with you and want to help you have a wonderful holiday. If you have questions about travel plans, diet, or the safety of gathering with your loved ones – talk to your medical team.

If you’re looking for patient support during the holidays or any time of year, VCU Health offers a variety of support groups and wellness services for patients. Find out more about social work services on our website

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