Cancer and the holidays: Talk it out or stay silent?


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UT Southwestern offers support groups for friends and family of cancer patients to help them talk about cancer during the holidays.

During the holiday season, many families gather to celebrate, sometimes after not seeing each other for months. If a family member has been diagnosed with cancer, it can be difficult to know how – or whether – to talk about it.

People often feel uncomfortable when talking about cancer and are uncertain what to say. Some people just don’t want to talk about it at all, while others may be overly cheerful or optimistic. Sometimes we think about ourselves – Will I get cancer too? – and those thoughts may distract us from focusing on the person who is going through cancer treatment.

Family and friends of cancer patients encounter these uncomfortable conversations throughout the year. It’s such a common situation that we have support groups available for families and the EMBRACE Survivorship Program for friends and family of cancer patients exactly for this purpose.

But group discussions can be especially poignant during the holidays. Cancer patients often say they would like to enjoy the holidays and family gatherings without talking about cancer. The disease brings a negative or sad atmosphere to the holiday season, and the patient doesn’t want to be responsible for sadness.

The holiday season also can place additional stress on caregivers. Caregivers are often emotionally and physically exhausted by taking care of a person with cancer, and the added stress of the holidays can simply be too much. Our happiest group discussions occur when a cancer patient and the caregiver feel supported by the family during the holidays.

What to say to someone with cancer

There’s no definitive answer on whether discussing cancer should be encouraged or avoided during the holidays. Each patient and each family is unique. But here are some general thoughts to keep in mind this holiday season if cancer afflicts someone in your family:
Recognize that while some cancer patients want to talk about their illness, others may not – and this can change from visit to visit.

  • Don’t ignore the issue completely.
  • Remember that cancer patients want to talk about other topics, too.
  • Don’t compare the patient’s cancer to another story you may have heard or read.
  • There’s no need to offer solutions or unsolicited advice – sometimes just having you there to listen is all the person needs.
  • Offer concrete help, such as rides to treatment, making meals, or caring for pets.
  • Recognize your own feelings – grief, fear, and anxiety are all common emotions.
  • Know that just because your relative has cancer, that doesn’t mean it will happen to you.
  • Keep holiday traditions alive, but scale back if needed to conserve the patient’s energy.
  • Show your affection as you normally do, with words and actions (such as hugs).
  • Suggest simple ways to relax, such as a good meal or a warm bath.

When to call the doctor

There are some signs that a patient may need help dealing with the stress that comes along with a cancer diagnosis. Watch to see if your family member seems unusually overwhelmed, depressed, sad, hopeless, or discouraged. It’s not uncommon for cancer patients to experience a change in their sleep patterns or to lose their appetite. Even thoughts of death or suicide can occur. Talk to a doctor, nurse, or social worker if the patient has any concerns that seem too much to manage.

Remember, your family member is going through a tough time and may need your support. It’s best to follow his or her lead in talking about cancer during the holidays.

If you or a loved one has been diagnosed with cancer, or you just want to learn more about a cancer-related topic, contact our Cancer Answer Line at 888-980-6050. The Cancer Answer Line is available 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday. Your call is always free and confidential. You may also email your questions or concerns to Email at any time.