Top tips for coping with cancer during the holidays

December 20, 2021
Cancer during the holidays
Battling cancer during the holidays can be difficult. Hollings patients and a doctor share advice with those going through difficult times this holiday season. Adobe Stock

When it comes to navigating a cancer diagnosis and treatment during the holidays, Wendy Balliet, Ph.D., likes to give her patients a piece of advice – stay present in the moment. Balliet, who is a psychologist at MUSC Hollings Cancer Center and the co-director of clinical operations in the MUSC Division of Bio-Behavioral Medicine, knows the challenges a cancer diagnosis presents firsthand.

“The holidays bring up all kinds of emotions when you’re dealing with a cancer diagnosis,” Balliet said. “One of my favorite quotes that I often use with patients is ‘Be where your feet are.’ It is easy to get lost in what has happened or what is to come, but it is really important to be present in the now.”

Dr. Wendy Balliet 
Dr. Wendy Balliet encourages her patients to remain present during their battle with cancer.

Balliet understands just how important it is to stay present. When she was just 18 years old, her father was diagnosed with glioblastoma and given a short time to live. As the cancer progressed, her father lost the ability to form spontaneous speech. The pair had connected over music long before his diagnosis, so that year, Balliet gave her father a memorable gift that sticks with her to this day – a CD with some of his favorite songs on it.

“I put on the CD, and he could still sing along to it because the tumor hadn’t affected his rote memory,” she said. “Even though he couldn’t have a normal conversation with us, we were able to still connect through music. You could tell how much he enjoyed that. It is a memory I have now 21 years later to cherish and share with others.”

Balliet understands a cancer diagnosis often brings more lows than it does highs, which oftentimes is only exacerbated during the holiday season. She encourages patients battling cancer to focus on what they can control.

“It’s really important to try and keep up the traditions with family and friends if you’re able to. If you can’t do all of them, pick the ones that are most important to you that mean the most. If there are some things around the holidays that drain your energy, it is OK to give those up.”

She also shared advice for family and friends of someone battling cancer. “Friends and family of the patient often don’t know what to say, so they don’t say anything. Unfortunately, that often leaves the patient feeling alone. Simply telling your loved one you aren’t sure what to say, but that you are here to listen and be there for them can help a lot.”

LaToya Wilson, a patient at Hollings battling metastatic breast cancer, said it is important to surround yourself with support, especially around the holidays. “Live in the happy moments,” Wilson said. “Start new traditions if you can’t continue old ones. Give thanks to God and allow your circle of family and friends to embrace you with no limits.”

Charleston dentist Larry Ferguson, D.M.D., is on a mission to raise awareness about cancer and help others battling the disease, after he was diagnosed with prostate cancer earlier this year. Ferguson underwent radiation at Hollings in May and understands the physical and emotion toll cancer treatments can have. He hopes to encourage others to remain positive and focus on one day at a time.

“I wake up every day with an attitude of gratitude. I look forward to each day with an expectation that it will be a wonderful day. Of course, all of us have issues that can upset our activities during the day. When I hear of something that makes me sad, I flow with the wave of that emotion, and as soon as I can, I try to re-center myself back to my happy place,” he said. “We are on a journey through life. My prayer is that as we go through our daily journey that we enjoy the presence of each moment and minimize negativity and hurtful words or thoughts.”

Balliet said one of the areas Hollings wants to address moving forward is adding more support and resources for caregivers. Beginning in 2022, Hollings will offer a support group for caregivers of transplant patients, with the hope of expanding it to cancer patients, to provide community and a safe space to share their feelings. Hollings also recently launched the Hollings Comfort Corner. There, patients and caregivers can find encouraging quotes, helpful tips and multimedia resources to help with their cancer journeys.

According to a 2016 study from the National Alliance for Caregiving, 50% of caregivers surveyed were juggling caring for a loved one with a full-time job, and 50% of caregivers reported high emotional stress stemming from caregiving.

“I always use the airplane example when talking with caregivers. On the plane, if the oxygen masks are deployed, you’re told to put your mask on before helping others with their masks,” Balliet said. “This is the same thing. You’re not going to be any good for someone else if you aren’t taking care of yourself.”

Beyond trying to remain present this holiday season, Balliet encourages her patients to try to keep a routine and get back to the basics of eating, sleeping and moving their bodies each day. She also recommends taking advantage of the numerous support groups offered by Hollings.

“Having a group of people that are going through something similar can increase the feeling of connectiveness and belonging. That can be especially important during the holiday season.”