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Supporting patients during the holidays

December 15, 2014

When 45-year-old Leah* recently found out she would need to undergo immediate breast cancer treatment at Mount Sinai’s Koffler Breast Centre, she worried about how she would continue to juggle the demands of her family and the effects of treatment, especially in light of the fast approaching holiday season. “We have always had Hanukah celebrations, but I wasn’t sure how much energy my chemotherapy would leave me with,” said Leah. “I really worried about letting my young daughters down.”

Leah’s challenge is very common for those dealing with health issues, according to Dr. Molyn Leszcz, Mount Sinai’s Chief of Psychiatry. “The holidays can be a challenging time -we imbue so much meaning into our holiday rituals – we are already emotional about traditions and facing a health issue amplifies that. It’s incredibly important to balance your use of energy and time, and prioritize what is important to you, so that it doesn’t become overwhelming.”

Dr. Jon Hunter, who specializes in providing psychiatric care to cancer patients at Mount Sinai, notes that managing expectations is key in these situations. “Recognizing that things are different when you are facing illness makes it easier for you to adapt to that difference. But just because things are different, doesn’t mean that you can’t do the things that you love to do – the things that are meaningful to you, during the holidays. Just be thoughtful about what is most important to you –whether it’s volunteering, or spending time with a loved one—it will be much better for you than trying to do it all.” Dr. Leszcz agrees. “The better you manage your stress, the better you’ll manage your illness.”

“Holidays are a very distinct time, but you should keep doing what feels good for you”, says Dr. Hunter. “But just ensure that that you are still taking care of yourself – get enough sleep, eat well and be careful about the typical excesses of the holidays – such as drinking.”

But perhaps the best advice for anyone dealing with illness during the holiday is to ask for a hand. “You don’t need to be stoic while undergoing treatment, and you don’t need to be tentative about asking for help. Most people want to help and offer support—it can really be an opportunity for friends and family to foster reciprocity and gratitude,” says Dr. Leszcz.

For Leah, it’s taken some adjustment to relinquish her primary role in organizing the family’s holiday celebration, but by delegating some of the heavy lifting to friends and family members, she’s confident she’ll be able to maximize the value and meaning during this special time of year. “Everyone has been assigned a specific role, depending on their strengths and their relationship to me,” says Leah. “And I’m so grateful.”

Once expectations have been set and help is in place, all that’s left to do is to enjoy the moments, says Dr. Hunter. “As you find yourself feeling reflective, do your best to focus on those around you and celebrate what is good in your life.”

*Not her real name.