A healthy living blog from Marshfield Clinic

Tips for celebrating holidays during a serious illness

A sad woman in a Christmas scene - Helping loved ones with illness during holidays

Fatigue, nausea, pressure to celebrate and depression can make the holidays hard when you have a serious illness.

A serious illness can change the holidays for people who recently have been diagnosed or are undergoing treatment.

“Holidays are viewed as a time to celebrate,” said Cheryl Vircks, a Marshfield Clinic oncology registered nurse. “It might be hard to feel joyful or cope with celebrating the holidays in a different way.”

Samantha Gruetzmacher, a Marshfield Clinic oncology social worker, said people who are seriously ill and their caregivers may feel pressure to host holiday events the way they did before the illness.

People with serious illnesses sometimes face fatigue and nausea from their conditions or treatments. These complications can make attending events hard even for people who want to go.

If you’re facing an illness this year, share your feelings and concerns about upcoming occasions with family and friends. Talking will help you make plans to spend the holidays in a meaningful and comfortable way.

6 tips to tackle the holidays

1. Accept that traditions change.

“Holiday celebrations can be enjoyable even if they’re different,” Vircks said. “Accept that it may be time to make changes, and your new traditions can bring just as much joy.”

2. Ask for help and scale back.

Ask for help preparing your home, cooking, serving food and cleaning up, or consider ordering a prepared holiday dinner. Get help shopping and decorating, or cut back in those areas.

3. Find a different host.

Let loved ones know if you don’t feel up for hosting the holiday celebration.

4. Adjust your celebration schedule.

If you know you’ll be too tired to attend an all-day party, let the host know you’ll only attend for a short time. Your family tradition may include multiple celebrations over several days. It’s okay to not attend all of them.

5. Plan for nausea.

Medication, treatments and certain odors can bring on waves of nausea at less-than-ideal times. Ask your doctor about anti-nausea medication to take before attending the party. You may want to skip the meal and come earlier or later to socialize if food odors really bother you.

6. Plan to rest.

If you know socializing or traveling makes you tired, plan time to rest between or during events.

Tips for hosts and loved ones

Ask how you can support or accommodate someone who is ill during the holidays,” Gruetzmacher said. “Bringing a green bean casserole to someone’s home may be well-intentioned but poorly executed if the smell makes him ill.”

She suggested asking how you can help in general and running specific ideas past the person who is feeling ill. Your idea of what they need help with during the holidays may be different from theirs.

Ask about dietary needs, if they want a special dish and if certain foods trigger nausea. Offer a quiet, private place to rest if they start feeling ill or tired during the party.

Bring the celebration to loved ones who are hospitalized or too ill to attend events. Organize a video call or film parts of the event to show your loved one later. Stop by their home with a requested dish from the holiday meal, or just to visit. Ask about bringing decorations to their home or hospital room to make the environment more festive.

Finally, providing care for a seriously ill family member can take its toll on the caregiver. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, give yourself permission to scale back or take a break from holiday celebrations.

“It’s okay to miss the way you traditionally celebrated the holidays, but try to focus on being together with family and friends,” Gruetzmacher said.

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