Thanksgiving: How to Cope When You Have Cancer

PJ Hamel | Nov 14th 2016 Sep 6th 2017

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Thanksgiving is all about eating, drinking, and making merry with family and friends. Cancer patients, survivors, and even caregivers face challenges in all three areas, as illness, fatigue, and sorrow so often turn any holiday into a trial. Here are some strategies for coping with Thanksgiving when you’re just not in the mood to celebrate.

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Buy it, don't bake it

You always bring something special — a pumpkin pie or homemade dinner rolls — to the gathering. But you simply can’t bake this year. That’s what bakeries are for! Rather than settling for something from the supermarket’s freezer aisle, spring for bakery goodies. Remember to place your order ahead of time to avoid last-minute disappointment.

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Don't want to eat? Do the dishes

Maybe chemo has you feeling just queasy enough that the thought of sitting down to a full plate of food is daunting. When dinner is served, tell your host or hostess you’d just as soon keep busy in the kitchen (if you have the energy for it). Then fill up the dishwasher or start scrubbing those pots and pans!

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Dress comfortably — including shoes

Does Thanksgiving mean dressing to impress? Not this year. You’ve got enough discomfort in your life without wedging your feet into painfully tight heels or pulling on pantyhose. Soft, elastic-waist slacks, a warm sweater, and comfy mocs will do just fine; your family fashion plates will totally understand.

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Hot, cold, or perfectly comfortable?

If you’re celebrating at a friend’s or family member’s house, dress for any temperature. Some folks think 65°F is warm; some keep the thermostat jacked up to 80°F. With cancer treatment making you super-sensitive to heat and cold, dress in layers: light pants, a scarf, a sweater, and/or a big shawl to drape over your legs, if necessary.

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Delegate, delegate, delegate

If your Thanksgivings are usually a whirlwind of baking, cooking, cleaning, and decorating, think before you act. Exhaustion and celebration are uneasy bedfellows. Buy a baked turkey, then delegate the rest of the food to friends and family. Ask someone to set and decorate the table while you direct from the sidelines.

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Change your venue

You’ve always hosted Thanksgiving at your house. Always. This year, a sibling has invited everyone to their house, instead. SAY YES — without hesitation. Family traditions are nice, but so is change. And who knows? The whole family might welcome this arrangement as a happy, permanent change.

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It's OK to outsource

You’re locked into hosting dinner, and you don’t feel up to cooking. But your guests are unable to help — perhaps they’re traveling from far away and arriving at the last minute. Keep an eye out for Thanksgiving dinner bargains. Supermarkets and restaurants often offer complete takeout meals for a reasonable price.

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Eat exactly what you want

If you feel like eating, eat only what you feel like eating. If a bowl of mashed potatoes, and nothing else, feels right — enjoy! Be careful not to over-indulge, though. Feeling as stuffed as the turkey is a recipe for digestive disaster, especially when you’re dealing with chemo.

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Take a day off from cancer

Worried about alcohol raising your risk of recurrence? Have a glass of wine. Trying to avoid weight gain while on hormone drugs? Enjoy a piece of pie — with whipped cream. Breaking the rules for one day isn’t a deal-killer; but it can be good for the soul.

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It's OK to cry — in private

Cancer often overwhelms the emotions, and big occasions tend to make you teary-eyed these days — often with joy rather than sadness. If you want to cry, take a walk. No sense scaring friends and family with tears they’ll obviously interpret as sadness, when you’re really just happy in the moment.

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Give thanks. You're alive.

You’re exhausted, sick, bald, scared, and wondering what to give thanks for. Well, you’re surrounded by loving family and friends. You’ve got a roof over your head, clothes on your back, and a medical team dealing with your health. And you’re alive — that’s more than reason enough to say thank you.

Breast cancer survivor and award-winning author PJ Hamel, a long-time contributor to the HealthCentral community, counsels women with breast cancer through the volunteer program at her local hospital. She founded and manages a large and active online survivor support network.