Christmas and the holiday time can be hard for people who have experienced a major change or loss in their life.

Feelings of loneliness, isolation and sadness are common at Christmas. Christmas traditions can be painful reminders of how life has changed. This year has been particularly difficult with the disruption and ongoing impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Our team of information nurses at the Cancer Information Service and Cancer Helpline hear from many callers about how hard Christmas can be for people affected by cancer. “We speak to people who are feeling so tired from treatment they can’t imagine how they will cope with shopping or the usual big family Christmas.”

“As experienced cancer nurses, we are here to listen to people’s cancer experiences and share emotional and practical support to help people cope when they are feeling fatigued and overwhelmed, or just wanting to offload.”

Tips for coping over the holidays         

Sharing experiences and coping strategies can help people get through tough times. Here are some tips from others affected by cancer:  

Set realistic expectations

  • Consider online shopping and/or gift vouchers for Christmas presents to save time and energy
  • Scaling back on decorating or shopping and/or accepting the help of others with this, can make it easier for you
  • To help keep costs down consider making home-made gift vouchers for things such as babysitting, gardening or a picnic
  • Booking Christmas lunch or dinner at a restaurant, arranging a picnic at a local park, or asking people to bring a contribution to the Christmas meal can  make it easier
  • If you are having treatment over Christmas, consider having a low key day on December 25 and plan a special day for when you have finished treatment
  • Think about the things you usually like to do over Christmas and work out what is important to you this year. You may like to watch your usual favourite Christmas movies or listen to music that gives you joy.

Talk about what you need

  • Tell others if you are finding it difficult to cope and accept offers of help. Be specific about things people can do to assist.
  • If you are supporting someone with cancer check out the Support Crew NZ website Support Crew is a free online service that easily coordinates meals and support for family or friends in need.

Be gentle with yourself

  • Give yourself permission to get through Christmas the best way you can. Let people know that you may need to have a rest on the day.    

Remember celebrations don’t have to be perfect.

  • Mood swings and feelings of loss are common over Christmas. Allow yourself some time to reflect
  • Have a plan B for times when you may find a family gathering or party overwhelming.

Keep it simple and save your energy

  • Feeling very tired (fatigue) is a common side effect after cancer treatment. Limiting large numbers of visitors and long car trips can help. As energy levels may vary, it can be helpful to plan the day’s activities and then halve them. Allow for rest time during the day. Try to build in a gentle walk regularly over the holidays as this can help restore your energy
  • Keep meals simple – a picnic or BBQ can make life easier.

Seek support

  • Talking to someone about your feelings can reduce feelings of distress and isolation. Family and friends can be a good source of support. Our experienced cancer nurses can listen to your concerns and put you in touch with support services. Call 0800 CANCER (226 237) to speak to a cancer nurse. We also recommend that you carry out of hour contacts for your treating doctor and hospital.

Cancer Information Helpline hours over Christmas

We will be closed over the holidays, 12 noon Thursday 24 December – reopening 8.30am 5 January 2021. Any phone messages and emails will be checked on the day we return to the office.

Our online forum CancerChatNZ will be taking a break from 12 noon Thursday 24 December–until Tuesday 5 January 2021

Other support services:

  • Healthline (24hr/7 days per week) 0800 611 116
  • Lifeline Aotearoa (24hr/7 days per week)     0800 543 354


This article has been adapted with kind permission of the authors, our Australian colleagues at the Cancer Council Victoria Cancer Helpline

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