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Feeling sad about going through chemo or radiation during the holiday season? Here's how to cope

Updated: Nov 12, 2019

As we near Thanksgiving, many women with breast cancer may be facing chemotherapy or radiation during the holiday season. I understand what it feels like — I nearly had a breast cancer Christmas last year, completing my final of more than 30 radiation sessions on Dec. 21. While I was happy to have that treatment completed, I know how sad it can feel to face the holidays while being affected by breast cancer.


Identify the source of your emotions

The fact is, your sadness could come from facing the disease, or it could be rooted in something entirely different. For some, the holidays may have always been at times sad, even before breast cancer, as they can make you reflect upon what you do not have. In fact, many people feel sadness during the holidays. Christmas does not often resemble what is portrayed in a Hallmark movie, complete with a perfect family that never fights, romance and a perfect Christmas tree (not to mention health). Chances are, your life was not perfect before your breast cancer diagnosis. Maybe you did not have all of those things that the main character in a Hallmark movie attains as the hour-and-a-half story unfolds. If so, the sadness of cancer can compound those emotions you already had.


Try to identify from where your sadness comes. Is it one of the following?

  • Not being able to experience the holidays in the same manner that you always have;

  • Realizing the fragility of life;

  • Celebrating the first holiday without a loved one;

  • Feeling that your life isn't what you want it to be at this point (for a variety of reasons, either because you have breast cancer, or don't have the perfect partner or family); or

  • Grieving what you did not have while growing up (think of all of the images of perfect families at the holidays).

Only you know from where your sadness comes. It could be a combination of the above items, or it could be none of them. It could be something else entirely. The important thing is that you figure out what it is.


How to identify from where the sadness comes

Sitting with one's emotions can be difficult. It is often hard for me, but I know it is a necessity if I am to figure out where my anxiety or sadness comes from, so that I can alleviate it. Often, focusing on the emotion will help to discover its source. Yet, that is easier said than done. Here are some ways to trick your mind into doing it.


Clear all other thoughts from your mind except from the sadness while doing one of the following:

  • Color in an adult coloring book;

  • Journal;

  • Knit or do needlework; or

  • Go for a walk.


Talking to a therapist or social worker is also a great option.


Once you understand your sadness, you can focus on working through it. Of course, I am not a professional, so if your feelings are overwhelming or seem unmanageable, call a hotline with trained professionals or find a trained therapist.


Celebrate the holidays (or not) on your own terms

As you accept that this year will simply be different than other holiday seasons during which you were healthy, decide how you want to recognize Christmas, Hanukkah or whichever holiday you recognize. Do you want to celebrate it with loved ones or do you want to take a step back? Whatever you do, keep your health and sanity in mind. It may be impossible to host a party this year, and that's fine. Spend your holidays however want to.


This may mean one of the following:

  • If you are a church- or temple-goer, watch a holiday service on TV rather than going to your place of worship, if a broadcast is available;

  • Enjoy a quiet holiday meal at home thanks to a catering service;

  • Buy gifts for loved ones online rather than trying fight crowds in stores to shop for them;

  • Decide to celebrate a holiday a month later, if you are on the cusp of being completed with treatment;

  • Decorate a plant at home rather than buying or putting up a Christmas tree.

  • Better yet, buy a rosemary plant, which places like Trader Joes sells, and enjoy its scent;

  • FaceTime or Skype loved ones rather than seeing them in person to stay away from their sick germs (hello depressed immune system) and to restore your energy (thanks, fatigue); or

  • If you are grieving the loss of a loved one this season, honor a tradition that that person did. It can help to keep their memory alive and be comforting.


Be sure to take care of yourself

Whatever you choose to do, know that the holidays are yours to celebrate (or not) in any way you wish to do so. The important thing is that you are taking care of yourself. Think about it this way: You are fighting cancer, which is the most challenging thing you should be doing this holiday season.


If the other demands of the season are overwhelming, let them go. You get to decide what you do with your time. Others will surely understand, as your health should be more important to them rather than the fact that you didn't feel like making your famous fudge. After all, they can learn to make it, too. In that case, the best gift could be the recipe.



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