Coping With Holiday Stress When You Have Cancer

Lidia Schapira, MD, FASCO; 2015-2021 Cancer.Net Editor in Chief
December 19, 2019
Lidia Schapira, MD, FASCO

Martin Inderbitzin was 32 when he received a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer. He had just finished his doctorate in neuroscience when he experienced an intense and unusual pain in his abdomen that led him to seek medical attention. After the diagnosis, he spent long months undergoing treatments. All the while, he faced an uncertain outcome. Now, 5 years later, Martin compares his cancer experience to the epic Greek poem, “The Odyssey.”

Martin told me the diagnosis pushed him out of what we all consider “normal.” Instead, he explained, a cancer diagnosis puts you on a long, demanding journey where you have to face a dangerous situation and confront your own mortality. After this long treatment, you come “home.” But in “The Odyssey,” when Odysseus comes home, nobody recognizes him except for the dog. He is not the same person as he was when he left. 

Cancer survivors also speak of feeling changed by the cancer experience in ways that resonate with Odysseus’ lament. And it is worth noting that these changes may not be obvious, even to those who love them most.

People living with cancer often long to have “normal” problems. Time loosens the grip of fear and anxiety that cancer brings, but the holidays can be a time when those feelings tend to make a resurgence. However, the holidays may also be a time when some feel more thankful for every cherished moment. For many, the holidays and celebration of a new year lead to happy memories and the promise of a “normal” future. After fearing one’s future may be cut short by the diagnosis of a serious illness, the magic of the holidays and new beginnings may feel even more special than before.

Yet there are still stresses and stressors that we all associate with the craziness of the holiday season. There are social events, gifts, traditions, and sometimes travel that require considerable anticipation, planning, and effort. For some, the added religious symbolism can evoke deep feelings. This mix of nostalgia and joyful expectation could be enough to cause stress for anybody. But a person who is being treated for cancer also faces additional physical, emotional, and practical challenges.

When it comes to coping with holiday stress, the simplest advice for people with cancer is to keep it simple. Looking through many websites and blog posts, I found consistent messages: Tweak traditions. Take time to rest. Don’t pretend you feel cheerful if you are grieving. Ask for help. Realize that being surrounded by external symbols of holiday cheer may trigger feelings of isolation.

What I have learned from many years of caring for patients and family caregivers is that it is possible to find joy without holiday wrapping or long-distance travel. Joy may be spending time with a loved one or sharing a meal with friends. And for the many cancer survivors who have made the journey home and have settled into a new normal, the experience of feeling routine holiday stress may even feel like a gift.


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