Alberta Cancer Foundation

Expert Advice On Navigating the Holiday Season With Cancer

The holiday season is just around the corner. This is a time of year that can tax our energy even in the best of circumstance — but, for those dealing with cancer, the demands of the season can be even more stressful. Dr. Guy Pelletier is a clinical psychologist in the department of psychosocial oncology at the Tom Baker Cancer Centre in Calgary who has 26 years of experience supporting cancer patients and their loved ones in all seasons. Here, he shares tips for making the holidays a little easier to manage.

Q: What are some of the key issues that can arise for cancer patients during the holidays?

The biggest one is that feeling of “I can’t do what I used to do.” But it’s important to heed medical advice. Physicians will have an opinion in terms of how much effort they think a person should be putting out. Another concern [for patients] would be that finances may be a bit constricted, so people can’t spend the money they’re used to spending during the holidays.

Q: What are some strategies that cancer patients can incorporate to avoid burnout during this busy season?

It’s important not to overcommit. Sit down and decide how things are going to work. Cut yourself some slack; if you don’t feel like going to a particular event, you don’t have to go. If you don’t want to send cards because you feel that it’s an additional burden, then don’t do it. There are a number of things that, if you’re not feeling very well, you can skip without too many difficulties.

Q: How can a person with cancer manage feelings of sadness or depression over the holidays?

Start early in terms of planning activities that are going to be interesting and allow time to pass. The key to dealing with this time of year is social support. Being with people can make a huge difference at a time of year that is particularly sensitive emotionally. Of course, there are people who may be more isolated than others. In those cases, going somewhere — it may be to a Christmas celebration, it may be to an event hosted by a church or social organization — can help.

Q: How can family and friends best support a loved one with cancer during the festive season?

Role shifting is important. That means passing a role that the person with cancer would usually have on to someone else. For patients who have a family, the demands of Christmas-related responsibilities may shift from one spouse to another. It’s important for people, if they can, to get a certain level of help in terms of even preparing for Christmas events.

Q: What’s the best strategy for getting family members who are unaccustomed to helping out during the holiday season to take on more of the work?

The patient and his/her loved ones should discuss early on how Christmas will go, who ought to do what, and what they expect the outcome(s) to be. That way, there should be no surprise when spouses and children are asked to contribute as planned.

Q: What are some mindful exercises a person can do to better enjoy the season?

Look for the simple pleasures, like noticing your loved ones being attentive to you. Even the pleasure of looking outside the window and seeing sparkling snow under the sun can help. Concentrate on enjoying the small stuff — you can do it multiple times a day and it will bring an element of joy that will help you overcome aspects of sadness.

Q: Where else can people go for help if they need it during the holidays?

Psychosocial resources still has services running at that time of year, and if it’s anticipated that things are going to be tough, then it would be useful for people to consider seeking out some additional help, which can be provided by our department [or others like it].

Visit for more information on booking an appointment with the Psychosocial Oncology department.