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Another "C" Word Is Cope: Coping Strategies for the Holidays

Breast cancer and melanoma survivor shares coping strategies for the holidays.
PUBLISHED December 21, 2017
Barbara Tako is a breast cancer survivor (2010), melanoma survivor (2014) and author of Cancer Survivorship Coping Tools–We'll Get You Through This. She is a cancer coping advocate, speaker and published writer for television, radio and other venues across the country. She lives, survives, and thrives in Minnesota with her husband, children and dog. See more at,or
When I first heard the "C" word—cancer, not Christmas – I thought it would be an instant death sentence. For me, it was not. Still, seven years out, I find myself coping with cancer stress mixed with holiday stress mixed with the stress of my first Christmas without Mom. It is not an ideal situation, but it is reality. Whether newly diagnosed, in active treatment or sorting out cancer survivorship weeks, months or years later, holidays can be tough, seriously tough. Maybe we miss someone. Maybe we wonder how long we will be around to celebrate the holidays with loved ones. Maybe we just plain feel we lack the energy and stamina for the holidays. Are you overwhelmed and stressed out? Here are the coping strategies that help me.

Stop self-blame. Is it our fault when we feel a lack of energy and/or we are stressed out? No. If you have a nagging little voice in your mind telling you that you aren’t good enough, turn it off. Holidays were challenging for me even before cancer. I can’t say this to fellow survivors enough: Be gentle with yourself. You deserve gentleness, now and throughout the year.

Put the holidays in perspective. I inwardly smile sometimes when I think about how I used to complain about hectic holiday stress. Stress, really? Right now, I am stressing about an upcoming breast MRI and possible double mastectomy. So really, am I stressing about getting my packages mailed in time to out-of-state relatives? Well, maybe a little, but not really. The whole breast cancer and melanoma survivorship puts the "worst case scenario" game on a whole different level and late holiday packages don’t even make it onto the game board.

Remember, people aren’t psychic. If I am going to simplify some of the holiday celebrating or gift-giving, I let people know in advance. I share my reduced or scaled-back plans. I remind myself it is their choice how they respond—whether they simplify or continue as usual is their choice. I don’t have to stress about it.

Ask. Ask for help. People in our lives want to help. They may not know how. Yes, it is OK to turn the holiday feast into a small simple buffet. Ask people to bring dishes. Ask for help decorating. Reduce decorating clutter. The reason for the season is to gather together people we care about, not the "correct" placement of every last little holiday decoration.

Take notes each year. Are you struggling with chemo brain too? I make lists and keep notes year to year. I don’t want to reinvent the wheel each holiday. I look at last year’s notes, and copy and tweak them from year to year. I have notes about what I have given people, what food was made and what cookies I bake. I cut back or change a little each year.

Let some of it go. It won’t be the end of the world. Honest! Many years ago, I stopped sending out cards. I probably got crossed off a few holiday card lists, but sometimes I still get a few. I am OK with my choice and I am happy to have taken that item off my to-do list.

Share. If you are going to simplify your holidays, give some of the excess away now. There are always younger family members just starting their own holiday traditions who are happy to accept the extra stuff you may be ready to weed out. Enjoy seeing the smile and hearing the thank-you.

Turn outward, not inward. I turn inward sometimes to process emotions, but the distraction that comes from thinking about others, decorating, baking or even shopping can provide relief from more serious worries. Pay attention to yourself and learn what helps you. You can create a simple, more peaceful and still joyous holiday season.
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