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Family celebrating Thanksgiving with video call.

COVID, cancer and the holidays: How to make the best of things

We all know this year is much different from any other, which means our holiday celebrations will have to be different as well.

For someone undergoing treatment for cancer, or who has finished treatment but still takes extra precautions to keep themselves safe, the question looms large: How do I handle the holidays?

Two experts from Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center have some advice for all of us on how to make the most of this unusual holiday season: Katherine Mullin, MD, Director of Infection Control and Prevention, and Jennifer Hydeman, PhD, a clinical psychologist.

Two experts from Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center have some advice for all of us on how to make the most of this unusual holiday season: Katherine Mullin, MD, Director of Infection Control and Prevention, and Jennifer Hydeman, PhD, a clinical psychologist.

Their biggest piece of advice is twofold: Take this opportunity to find simpler ways to observe the holidays while making new traditions, and express your desire to limit your time with others in direct, plain language.

“These are not theoretical risks,” Dr. Mullin says. Canada had a lower overall rate of illness all year, but a sizable spike in cases followed that country’s Thanksgiving celebrations in mid-October. 

Most cancer patients, or people who otherwise have compromised immune systems, have long been taking the necessary precautions to reduce their risk of COVID-19: washing their hands frequently, using hand sanitizer, wearing masks and staying at least six feet from other people. 

If you are getting together with relatives, make sure everyone is masked and keeping as distant as possible while inside, Dr. Mullin says. “People have different comfort zones. Get a sense of the people coming into your bubble and what their decisions have been like over the past 14 days. People make decisions for a variety of reasons and having a sense of those reasons should inform your decisions too. The safest decision is to avoid travel and to stay in your local community.” 

If the thought of being around others for a holiday celebration or while running errands makes you anxious, take a few moments to plan how to minimize your risk, Dr. Mullin says. Think through each possible exposure risk and determine how you’ll address it. Feeling more in control in what might seem like a chaotic scenario can help decrease anxiety and allow you to feel more prepared and confident. 

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Reimagine, don’t ignore, holiday traditions

The holidays are typically a time to be around family — lots of family, sitting very closely at crowded tables and with overnight visitors on couches and in sleeping bags to maximize visiting time. There’s no doubt this year will be difficult for many people to decide whether to visit relatives or stay home. 

“There’s no time like the holidays. It’s our default to be around others,” Dr. Hydeman says. “Don’t make this an all-or-nothing year. It’s not that; it’s not a black or white situation. You don’t have to sit at home and watch TV and pretend the holiday isn’t happening.” 

Instead of the big family dinner, she suggests coordinating a video call with family, with everyone sitting around their tables and calling in together to share the meal — it’s connected but distanced. In warm-weather regions, eating the meal outside while physically distanced is a great alternative. 

It’s also important to acknowledge altering the holiday is difficult, and some people might feel depressed or anxious about all the changes and challenges. 

“The biggest thing is to remember why the holidays are important to us in the first place,” Dr. Hydeman says. “We connect, we give thanks, we show gratitude to one another with gift-giving, and we pause and reflect. We can still do all of this. It might not have the same warmth, but we can do the same rituals and tasks over Zoom, FaceTime or even with a letter.” 

Remember that the small sacrifices made this year have a very powerful goal behind them: Being together, in person, for the holidays next year.

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