5 Holiday Tips for Families with Cancer


Cancer is something that impacts the entire family and changes how you and your own family may approach the holidays. Here are 5 tips for families with cancer to use during the holiday season.

What do you do with a holiday season when “The Grim Reaper” is as likely to come down the chimney as Santa Claus? Every family is different, but I can tell you what my family and I have done through the course of my cancer to still celebrate the spirit of the holidays.

1. Do Not Get Hung Up on Dates

The first Christmas after a brother was diagnosed with cancer was the first Christmas he did not spend with his family, the five of us at home worried about him in his Naval hospital two states away. We did not visit, having travelled to see him in October, an expensive trip that initiated the beginning of the financial toll cancer can take on an extended family aside from any medical expenses.

We delayed Christmas until early January when he got to come home. Having him back in the house, even though we knew he had come home to live his last days, was gift enough for all of us. Christmas can come in July or January if you really want it to.

2. Create a New Tradition

When somebody has cancer, food tastes funny sometimes, so do not force anybody to go with the usual tradition if it might create an unnecessary challenge. Cook an appropriate meal with love.

While the Grim Reaper was not going to come for me the Christmas I was in cancer treatment, given my diagnosis and positive prognosis, I was not interested in preparing a traditional holiday meal for my son. Finding frozen Carolina shrimp at a local grocery store, I made a simple meal of shrimp and grits instead. Now when Christmas comes, I still cherish that memory and I try to recreate it when I can.

3. Play Happy Music Anyway

Holiday music from different traditions tends to be happy. A house filled with the sounds of happy voices may seem out of place when somebody has just begun palliative treatment or entered hospice care. As Shakespeare and many others have reminded us, music is soothing. In fact, a simple gift for somebody who is not well can be music that will uplift their soul.

When my mother, who passed away from both dementia and complications of breast cancer, was in her last months I made compact disks for her to listen to. Even better, during her last Christmas a choir from a local church strolled through the halls of her nursing home. This year, roaming choirs are contraindicated with the pandemic, but gifts of music—from CDs to your own resounding voice shared via a smart phone—will still be special.

4. Make Special Holiday Memories

My brother’s last Christmas, the one we knew would be his last, my parents went all out. The tree was brighter, the presents more meaningful and the Christmas dinner was a feast to behold. We never gave extravagant gifts in my family, but that year there were a few. The most special gifts, however, were from my brother to the rest of his family. The five of us cherished his trip to a local drugstore to pick out his gifts.

The Frankincense and Myrrh perfume he gave me in 1975 is still on my dresser. I wear it once a year, on Christmas. I always gave him a book, but you can still handknit the most sumptuous scarf ever for somebody who may not wear it more than a week. I made a friend dying of colon cancer an exquisite shawl, which her husband told me she wore the last time she sat outside to look at the evening sky. These were memories I will cherish forever and associate with this time of year.

5. Or Do Nothing Special Whatsoever

Yes, that is right. Do nothing, or do what you want. Despite what I have said above, I give my family permission to cancel a holiday one day and live in the moment that life ordains.

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