The holidays are a time to gather with friends, family, and loved ones. It can be a joyous time and a welcome distraction for those facing a serious illness. But, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to be a concern all around the country and the world, patients diagnosed with cancer are facing another holiday season that will look very different compared to their prepandemic holiday celebrations. During this difficult time, patients and caregivers can benefit from additional guidance and information from their medical team to help them make an informed decision about holiday plans.
The benefits of social interaction for patients with cancer and caregivers
Being diagnosed with cancer is an isolating experience. Patients are dealing with things like treatment side-effects, fatigue, limited mobility, and recovering from surgery, which often prevents them from being able to engage in the same social activities they enjoyed before cancer. Adding to that are the COVID-19 pandemic and stay-at-home orders to prevent infection. This prolonged isolation can contribute to depression, loneliness, and anxiety, making it even more challenging for cancer patients to cope with their illness and treatment. 1
Now that we have widespread access to the vaccine and restrictions on travel and businesses are lifting, many people are going back to their prepandemic lives. However, cancer patients are still high-risk and are often continuing to avoid large gatherings and social engagements. Although protecting their physical health is important, social isolation is negatively affecting their mental and emotional health. 1
It is widely known that social interactions with family, friends and community members can help boost a patient’s mood. Simple gestures such as a hug or holding hands release feel-good hormones like oxytocin, dopamine and serotonin.2 A phone conversation, a thoughtful care package, greeting card, or comforting meal delivery are also helpful boosts for patients.
Caregivers need social interactions, too. So much of their day is focused on caring for their loved ones. A visit with a friend, time out of the house or engaging in a hobby are all welcome distractions for caregivers. This allows them to recharge in order to be able to continue to care for their loved one. Since the start of the pandemic, much of this respite has been taken away from caregivers and they are also struggling with social isolation.
Providing guidance and information for safe gatherings
The COVID-19 pandemic is lasting much longer than most people expected and it’s leaving everyone, but especially patients with cancer, wishing for some normalcy in their day to day lives. Participating in holiday traditions is something to look forward to for patients and caregivers. However, is it safe for them to gather this holiday season? There is a lot of different information out there and it may be helpful for nurses and medical professionals to provide guidance about how to go about celebrating the holidays safely.
First, patients and caregivers can be educated about the fact that every person’s risk is different depending on the type of cancer they have, where they are in their treatment and the type of treatment they are receiving.3 Patients and caregivers should be provided with concrete information about their risk for developing serious health complications if they contract COVID-19 to help guide their decision-making about this holiday season and other social gatherings. 4
Patients can also be provided with precautionary measures they can take such as wearing a mask during gatherings, avoiding hugs, gathering outside, or only meeting with those that are vaccinated. Although some of these precautions are now commonplace for most of us, patients and caregivers can benefit from being reminded about how to protect themselves. If it is determined that a patient is too high-risk for any type of gathering, these are some options to help them feel connected during the holiday season:
- Virtual gatherings
- Sending care packages or cards
- Watching religious ceremonies on TV or streaming services
- Shortened visits from family or friends, sitting outside or talking through a window
This is a list of questions patients and caregivers may have regarding gatherings:
- Is it safe for me to go to a family gathering as long as everyone is vaccinated?
- What precautions should I take if I am going to a gathering or traveling?
- Is it safe for me to go to a house of worship for religious ceremonies?
- Should we all get tested before we get together?
Nurses and medical professionals providing practical guidance to patients and caregivers can give some reassurance about how to safely celebrate holidays and engage in the social interactions they need during this challenging time. Engaging in these conversations can normalize the fact that patients and caregivers are feeling isolated and provide alternative suggestions on how to safely engage in social interactions during the holiday season and beyond.
- Aubry L. Social isolation’s toll on cancer patients during COVID-19. Loma Linda University Health. December 9, 2020. https://news.llu.edu/health-wellness/social-isolation-s-toll-cancer-patients-during-covid-19
- Holland M.T. Facts about touch: how human contact affects your health and relationships. Dignity Health. April 28, 2018. https://www.dignityhealth.org/articles/facts-about-touch-how-human-contact-affects-your-health-and-relationships
- Alkon C., Lee V. Breast cancer, COVID, and the holiday season: advice for safely connecting with loved ones. BreastCancer.org. October 22, 2021. https://www.breastcancer.org/tips/covid-19/holidays
- Ball, M. Cancer patients face tough decisions this holiday season. Asbestos.com. December 23, 2020. https://www.asbestos.com/blog/2020/12/23/cancer-tough-decisions-holidays/