By Shelbie Sullivan, MS, MA, LPC, NCC, Club Red Associate Board Member

Mental health becomes an increasingly important topic to consider for yourself and loved ones as holidays approach. As a therapist, I hear from many people about these seasonal difficulties. I will often encourage clients to imagine and compare themselves to a sturdy tree; recognizing it is grounded, secure, and able to withstand many conditions of life. Imagine that tree as it goes through its own seasonal changes, it can get damaged or become vulnerable based on the patterns around it. Now consider yourself navigating seasons of life, but add cancer treatment into the mix. Although we are grounded as humans, we naturally have seasons of life where we are more vulnerable.

Whether you are someone in current treatment, a family or friend supporting someone, in survivorship, or processing grief from a loss, know that you are still grounded and with support and openness can find small and intentional ways to experience this holiday season a little more presently. No matter how or if you celebrate all, some, or none of the upcoming holidays, we all experience human emotions and those emotions can be similar to the various conditions our sturdy tree goes through.

Here are some learning moments I have shared with clients and family members when celebration is coming.

Kindness considerations while in treatment…

  • You are allowed to ask for specific needs. I recall a client who struggled with eating certain foods due to treatment factors. She worried she would upset her loved ones by denying the food. We explored what she could tolerate and how to request a meal she could enjoy: buttered noodles. Family and friends would much rather provide a service or dish that you can truly enjoy.
  • Showing up for any time is the gift. I heard about many family traditions that would require my clients to travel. After treatment begins you never know the full effect of side effects. I would speak a lot about intentions and the gift being the memories for themselves and their family. “Will they remember how many naps you took or that you were there?”

Reminders for caregivers or family/friend:

  • It’s okay to just hold space. During holiday time it can be quite usual for us to share updates about life. Many times family and friends might feel unsure what to ask or how to navigate the tropic of cancer. It’s okay to acknowledge not knowing what to say or how to show support.
  • There is a new normal now. Traditions can be beautiful and we likely want to maintain them as long as possible. When we support someone through cancer the traditions that once were, might now feel more difficult. Grieving a type of their life or struggling with side effects might mean it’s time to lean into a new tradition.

Adjustments for a survivor:

  • Your struggles are valid. Grief and struggles do not end once you medically complete treatment. Recalling holidays from your treatment or feeling fear on how to manage possible firsts can make staying in the moment difficult. Clients share how difficult comments like “glad you’re all good” and “aren’t you so happy” are really conflicting during holidays. Finding comfort is seeking the support you need and leaving what you don’t.

Processing your grief:

  • It’s okay not to be okay. Holidays only happen so often, which means you only practice them so often. As you process grief, it is perfectly appropriate to feel stronger memories and emotions as novel reminders present themselves.

For all of us:

Be present and stay grounded. The concept of “the here and now,” is a reminder that we cannot truly be anywhere other than right where we are; except when our minds wander away. Being present isn’t about ignoring reality or avoiding, it’s about the intentions of embracing what we can do within the right now.

If you become overwhelmed and drift away from the moment, consider the 54321 technique to bring you back. Try to go through each of these sensory explorations to remind yourself you are here and there are always experiences that draw us back.

            Look for 5 things you can see

            Touch 4 things around you

            Listen for 3 different sounds

            Smell 2 new scents

            Eat (or sip) 1 thing you can taste

There might be that exact family recipe that is made and perfected at your upcoming holidays. But there is never an exact recipe on how to do the holidays in a cancer world. Embrace what you can and be kind with one another as you try to stay grounded and embrace what we can during these possibly emotional times of the year.

Stay well. Be present. Embrace what we have. Remember who we’ve lost.

Photos by Lindsey Dalton.


  1. 1
    Cecilia Stodd on November 22, 2023

    This was a fantastic article. It’s okay to clear some space during the holiday season to enjoy being alive.

  2. 2
    Elaine on November 22, 2023

    This is awesome & so much needed right now. Thank you…

  3. 3
    Kim Virden on December 26, 2023

    This line struck me and felt good to hear “Clients share how difficult comments like “glad you’re all good” and “aren’t you so happy” are really conflicting during holidays. Finding comfort is seeking the support you need and leaving what you don’t.

    My cancer is rare and the type that keeps giving and giving. So even thou I may look ok from the outside – the inside is not “all good”. So when I hear messages like this – I know they mean well but it hurts a lot inside to know they just don’t GET IT! The struggles are an every day occurrence and never go away….so I’m not good and never will be because my cancer is not curable. I want to be happy but while I watch my friends go thru the very painful death march to the end….it hurts like crazy.

    Thanks for your article.

  4. 4
    Patricia on January 17, 2024

    The holiday season can be tough for many. Grateful for this post offering insights and strategies to navigate mental health during the holidays. A must-read for those seeking support.

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