Eight ways to cope with the holidays during a pandemic

December 4, 2020

For people affected by breast cancer, the holidays can be difficult every year. This year could be especially difficult. As we kick off the 2020 season, COVID-19 continues to spread around the country. Many local governments are cautioning against large events, traveling, and spending time indoors with people who are not members of your household. The way we celebrate this year will be different than we are used to, and that can make this time even more upsetting.

Kelly Grosklags, LICSW, BCD, is an experienced therapist who works in oncology and palliative care. She says many people who have been treated for cancer or are living with cancer put special importance on holidays and that missing out on gatherings can be painful.

“I'm seeing this new emerging grief around COVID-19 and the holidays, with people living with cancer,” Ms. Grosklags says. “Oftentimes people feel like so much has been taken from them when they get diagnosed, and that this is one more thing that's been taken from them.”

Other concerns carry over from past years. While there may not be a large dinner to prepare, sending cards, affording gifts, and making things special for children may all be expectations that are difficult to meet after a breast cancer diagnosis.

Some people will try to gather this season, making arrangements to try to safely meet with nearby friends and family. It can be hard to ensure these kinds of meet-ups are safe and, for people getting treatment and most vulnerable to COVID-19, the anxiety around such arrangements may not be worth what you get out of it, Ms. Grosklags says.

Perhaps the most pressing concern in 2020 is isolation. Ms. Grosklags says isolation can lead to depression and anxiety disorders as well as intense loneliness, which can have a negative effect on your mental and physical health. Isolation is a common concern for people with cancer who may have to isolate for short periods due to treatment, but for many this year, isolation has been going on for months and there is no clear end date.

Despite these challenges, there are many ways to care for your emotional health and connect with friends and family over the holidays. Here are eight ways Ms. Grosklags says you can care for your emotional health and connect with friends and family over the holidays:

Reschedule gatherings for 2021

Canceling family get-togethers can feel like a loss. Ms. Grosklags recommends rescheduling for 2021 so there is something to look forward to.

Focus on connection

It’s natural to want to make the holidays great, and in the past you may have put effort into a large dinner, decorations, and big parties. Ms. Grosklags reminds us that it’s the time spent with loved ones that makes the holidays great. You may not be able to have the party you want, but you can find ways to converse and spend time with the people close to you. Figure out what feels right for you and your loved ones. You can try:

  • Video calls on Zoom, Google, or Facetime
  • Phone calls
  • Emailing
  • Sending a handwritten letter or card
  • Connecting on social media, such as starting a Facebook group or Instagram or Twitter chat to share fun pictures, videos, and links

Be more intentional

“Traditions are so important, but I also think we can get complacent with them,” says Ms. Grosklags. Since many gatherings won’t happen this year, it may be a good time to think about how you spend your holidays. Think about who you want to celebrate with and what traditions you find meaningful. You may not be able to do everything you’d like, but you and your loved ones can think of fun alternatives that keep the spirit of those traditions even during the pandemic.

Healthy habits

For those feeling isolated, it’s important to engage with the world and keep yourself healthy. Ms. Grosklags recommends drinking enough fluids and taking walks outside when the weather allows it. She also suggests scheduling calls with friends for the morning so that when you wake up you have something to look forward to and start your day with something pleasant.

Find ways to show affection, even remotely

Ms. Grosklags says there is a lot of therapeutic power in physical touch, even in a simple hug, that we are missing out on this year. We have to find other ways to break through and show affection. It could be making time to call someone individually, or sending a handwritten card or a gift — even something very small — just to let someone know you were thinking of them. Be creative!

Be gentle around expectations

There are limits to what we can get done, and if you are in treatment now or have been treated for breast cancer in the past, you have had to manage your expectations before. You may have days where you don’t have the energy to do all the tasks you wanted to, or you may not have the budget for gifts that you would like to give. It’s OK to ask for help and it’s OK to make allowances for yourself, even during the holidays.

Recognize what is being lost

It’s OK to feel sad about the moments and memories you won’t get this season. There are family gatherings that won’t happen, travel plans that have to be canceled, parties and events that won’t be held. These losses are sad for anyone. For many people affected by breast cancer, the loss is even more notable because you’ve considered how valuable these occasions are, and for people living with metastatic breast cancer these events are truly irreplaceable. There are many ways to replicate the warmth and connection of the holidays, but Ms. Grosklags says it’s important to recognize the loss that many people are feeling.

Connect, connect, connect

Without the usual events and gatherings, it’s up to all of us to make sure that we connect with loved ones this season.

“I think what's important to remember is that we are physically needing to distance for our health, but we should not be socially distancing, also for our health,” Ms. Grosklags says. “We have to find ways to socially and mentally and psychologically connect with people. Letters, calls, texts, Zoom, Facetime, whatever that may be.”

We’ve already made progress. Ms. Grosklags says she’s seen people who never considered themselves to be very tech savvy embracing new video conferencing, group chats, and social media to stay close this year. Taking care of your emotions and finding connection through the holidays this year will take special effort, but we have tools that can help us enjoy the season with the people we love.


If you are having trouble and would like to speak with a trained volunteer who has been diagnosed and treated for breast cancer, contact our Breast Cancer Helpline. When you’re ready to talk, we’re ready to listen.

More In Emotional Health

Blog Stories April 6, 2021