How to Help Friends or Family Battling Cancer During the Holidays

"The phrases 'at least...' or 'everything happens for a reason' should be expunged from our vocabulary."

Imagine going through the holidays while getting cancer treatment. For a lot of people, there’s no reason to imagine, because it’s a reality.

Don’t stress too much about how to be supportive this holiday season, says Dr. Lucy Kalanithi, who lost her husband Paul, author of the heartwrenching novel When Breath Becomes Air, in 2015 to metastatic lung cancer. “You don’t have to say something perfect! My mom always used to say, ‘When in doubt, describe’: that just means approach the conversation honestly and vulnerably.”

Here, a few more things to remember when getting together this season.

Try to empathize (but know it’s OK if you can’t)

People with cancer have a heightened sense of their own mortality, says oncology nurse Deborah K. Mayer, PhD, RN, AOCN, FAAN, who also runs the Cancer Survivorship program at the University of North Carolina. “In some ways that’s a gift, to make it more poignant or meaningful, but on the other hand that also can be a very big burden.” Remember to meet your friend where he or she is, and understand that you may not fully be able to understand what they’re feeling.

Include him

Being around loved ones can help him or her feel supported, but it can actually also feel isolating and lonely. “Whether patients decide to attend social get-togethers or decline to do so, they may feel more insulated and isolated by the contrast between the public atmosphere of gaiety and their private dread about their own wellbeing,” says Susan Gubar, ovarian cancer survivor and author of the monthly column Living with Cancer as well as the book Late-Life Love.

Be thoughtful and be present

For many, the worry of imposing too much can lead to not including someone with cancer in the otherwise “normal” rituals around the holidays — but, says Dr. Kalanithi, this isn’t always the best way to go. “Include them, invite them, show up,” she recommends. “Text them just to say hi, you loved the holiday card, you have a sitcom to recommend, you read an article that reminded you of them, you’re holding them in your heart. Illness can be lonely!”

This is particularly true, Gubar says, when physically exhausted or debilitated. “When I was totally incapacitated, nothing meant more to me than visitors willing and able to sit with me and by virtue of their presence remind me why life is worth living.”

Consider her comfort

Between shopping for gifts, socializing and dealing with the normal nuances of family gatherings, the holidays are taxing physically. “This person may or may not have a lot of energy to be dealing with all of the holidays,” reminds Mayer. “Being sensitive to tiring activities, making sure the person has a place to lie down or get some quiet if they need to with everything that’s going on; going for walks, having a quiet room, having a place where they can intermittently take a break, all that can be helpful.”

Even more, she continues, it can help to have one person who’s particularly close with the person going through cancer to act as point person to communicate with him or her. “Have somebody who’s close with them talk to them about it, about how much do they want to be involved with what’s going on. It’s very dependent on the person and what they’re dealing with as to what kind of accommodations they may need or want.”

Acknowledge it, but don’t harp on it

Cancer patients or survivors may not feel comfortable bringing up his or her illness, so it’s important to give him or her the space to do so, if he or she is inclined. “Most of us don’t want to be a downer,” explains Gubar. “Sharing our concerns may not feel appropriate.”

“Acknowledge what they’re going through (for them, it’s usually much more awkward when people avoid it),” agrees Dr. Kalanithi, but don’t get too wound up. “Don’t be afraid to just be yourself and keep cultivating the relationship. My late husband’s best friend asked for career advice during the time my husband was sick. It felt like a real relief for him to feel relied upon, to feel like an agent rather than a vulnerable object.”

Follow his lead

Always respect whatever boundaries he or she draws. “It’s always safe to let the person with cancer be the leader,” advises Mayer. “Be sincere and authentic about it, without necessarily prying or getting into it if the person doesn’t want to be talking about it.”

Dr. Kalanithi suggests reaching out without forcing him or her to open up, by saying something like, “I’d love to listen if you want to share how you’re feeling. Or I’d love to watch The Bachelor. I’m up for whatever! I’m just so glad to see you.”

There is no hard-and-fast rule for how, when or how much to discuss one’s illness, continues Gubar. “Each patient has to decide how, where, when, and with whom to communicate. Let the patient take the lead. Sometimes I want to forget about cancer altogether and surely a holiday feast can provide a bright spot of happy repression. So I don’t appreciate well-meaning people earnestly asking me over the cranberries or cookies if my ovarian cancer is progressing!”

Don’t try to rationalize It

The temptation to help ourselves — and our loved ones — make sense of illness is common, but it’s best to resist it. “I’m in a Facebook group called Hot Young Widows Club, and I can tell you that everyone agrees, the phrases ‘at least…’ or ‘everything happens for a reason’ should be expunged from our vocabulary,” says Dr. Kalanithi.

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