Holiday advice for cancer patients and their families

Holiday advice for cancer patients and their families

With a spike in COVID-19 cases leading to heightened restrictions in Orange County, what does the holiday season look like for cancer patients and their families who need connection more than ever? What steps can families take to ensure that people with cancer won’t feel left out or isolated?

“When someone you love has cancer, the holidays can feel different, but they become incredibly more meaningful and important for many. Now, because of COVID-19, it’s even more important for families to discuss the holidays together, figure out what the family and cancer patient can do, what they want to do, and what they should not do,” said Melissa Sadikoff, MSW, LCSW, a social work program specialist at City of Hope Newport Beach’s Department of Supportive Care Medicine.

Holiday spirit, safety spirit

During the pandemic, the way we observe the holidays has to be different. Safely and successfully adapting cherished seasonal traditions takes the same kind of shared commitment that drives supportive care medicine, said Sadikoff.

“It’s about working together to make sure patients and their loved ones never have to face the challenges involved with cancer – or the pandemic – alone,” Sadikoff said. That means first remembering that cancer patients, who typically have compromised immune response, are at high risk of serious complications if they are exposed to the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 and, second, paying utmost attention to the guidance of our public health experts.

In all of your holiday celebrations, diligently follow and enforce among family members the rules regarding masks, physical distancing, hand washing and sanitizing, and limitations on gatherings. 

Adapting traditions

The key to keeping the holidays alive during tough times is flexibility, said Sadikoff. She knows one City of Hope family that has a winter tradition of cooking tamales together. It is a joyfully painstaking process, and the cancer patient is the matriarch whose job it had been to run the show. To keep her safe and abide by COVID-19 guidelines, the family set up a distanced workstation where she could help with the tamale-making.

“The kids getting involved made it so lovely, because it made her feel like she was contributing, passing on her legacy (even down to the pot they have used for generations) while allowing them to make sure all risk-reduction protocols were followed,” Sadikoff said. “Although she had to hand off the leadership role to her daughter, the daughter did a beautiful job making it all work.”

Identify at least one specific tradition that your loved one with cancer can safely partake in and make it the centerpiece of this year’s celebration.

Technology to the rescue

There are more than a few other ways a family affected by cancer can come together in a risk-reduced fashion during the COVID-disrupted holidays.

  • Use video teleconferences to bring families together, whether it’s for a meal, trimming a tree, or opening gifts.
  • Ask extended family and friends to do a drive-by visit and express their well-wishes with honks, cheers and carols from the car seat so the loved one can see them in person.
  • Flip the drive-by on its head: Take the loved one in a decorated car to relatives’ homes and send season’s greetings from the driveway.
  • Create an online gift exchange among the extended family. Websites such as or are an easy and fun way for families who like to do white elephant gift exchanges.

Don’t forget self-care

It’s crucial to care for yourself and give yourself grace during this unprecedented pandemic and all of the uncertainties that accompany it. Everyone needs coping mechanisms, said Sadikoff. But many of our normal release valves for stress have simply disappeared, including things we used to take for granted, like being able to get out of the house and visit friends, or throwing a party.

If you aren’t feeling well, physically, mentally, or emotionally, reach out to get the support that you need.

“It is okay to not be okay, and we don’t say that enough,” Sadikoff said. “Self-care is crucial. It’s true for patients and families, and it’s true for physicians, caregivers, and staff – everyone who is involved and invested in the patient’s well-being. Staying well is what keeps us able to care for others.”

Holiday spirit and safety spirit can and must go hand in hand, said Sadikoff. “If a patient wants to celebrate, they should, as long as, and to the extent, they are following safety protocols. Family means everything to someone who is fighting a serious disease like cancer, and emotional health plays a major role in how a person navigates their cancer diagnosis and treatment.”


City of Hope Newport Beach provides cancer patients access to an integrated, interdisciplinary array of supportive care services and programs that enhance emotional health. To learn more, call 949-763-2204 or visit