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Celebrating the Holidays When a Loved One Has Cancer

Dr. Vivian Jean Cline of Texas Oncology-Marble Falls offers these tips to celebrating the holidays when a loved one has cancer.

The holidays are a time when friends and family gather to celebrate traditions and make new memories. But for cancer patients and their loved ones, the season is challenging.

Here are some tips to help your family celebrate the holidays while coping with cancer.


There is no better gift than quality time. Rather than dwelling on a loved one’s cancer diagnosis, enjoy the special moments of togetherness the holidays bring. Easy activities include board and card games, holiday movie marathons, or sharing family stories.


Finding a good balance of down time and social time is key to helping your loved one enjoy the season. Cancer patients might not be up to a hectic, stressful schedule during the holidays. Instead, seek a flexible routine that includes necessary down time. Offer to host the family’s holiday gathering, propose a potluck meal or ordering take-out food, or suggest alternate sleeping arrangements for out-of-town family and friends to avoid the stress of hosting overnight guests.


Avoid commenting on appearance and changes in mood or energy level. Rather, ask open-ended questions about well-being and offer support. Your loved one might want to share a lot about his or her cancer journey or not wish to discuss it at all. Give your loved one the freedom to do either.

Say this:

• “How are you feeling?”

• “I’ve been thinking about you.”

• “Is there anything I can do to help make you feel more comfortable?”

Not this:

• “You’ve lost so much weight!”

• “You’re losing your hair!”

• “I read about this new treatment on the Internet …”

• “My friend had the same type of cancer, and he/she is in remission now.”


When purchasing gifts for those affected by cancer, look for items that are comforting, distracting, or entertaining. Examples include crossword or Sudoku puzzles, adult coloring books, gift cards to favorite restaurants, cozy blankets, meditation books, massage or spa treatments, funny movies, and personal notes of encouragement. Avoid giving anything containing synthetic perfumes that might trigger nausea; plants or flowers that harbor fungal spores that place patients at risk of infection; or sweets because many patients have dietary restrictions.


‘Tis the season for the flu! With more cold and flu cases, increased travel, and more visitors than usual, this time of year can be especially hard for someone with a weakened immune system due to cancer treatment. Encourage thorough and frequent handwashing among all family members and guests.


Cancer treatment frequently changes food tastes. Ask in advance if there are specific food aversions or needs to consider when preparing a meal. As a general rule, stick to holiday meal staples like turkey, potatoes, and green beans. Avoid foods with strong smells. If the holiday meals are traditionally prepared by your loved one with cancer, suggest an alternative or divvy up responsibilities.

By making some adjustments to hectic holiday schedules, family members and friends can help those affected by cancer enjoy important traditions and cherish their time with loved ones. For more information about navigating the holidays when a loved one has cancer or to find fun and simple ways to keep spirits high, including a downloadable list of family-friendly card games, visit

Vivian Jean Cline, M.D., is a medical oncologist at Texas Oncology-Marble Falls, 1100 Mission Hills, Suite 200.

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