a hand holding two candy canes forming a heart shape

Top tips from Inova Life with Cancer experts: How reducing stress, eating well and staying active can make it easier to enjoy the holidays

With Lauren Fay, RD, CSO, CNSC; Susan Gilmore, MS, ACSM; and Alexandra Russo, MSW, LCSW

The holiday season can be a stressful time for anyone. For those living with and battling cancer, it can bring additional demands. The weight of treatment, illness, and nutritional and physical limitations can make this time particularly taxing for those impacted by cancer.

Specialists from Inova Life with Cancer provide patients with compassion and expertise year-round. For the holiday season, a few of our experts share their top tips for thriving amidst the festivities.

Staying active and exercising

The ‘most wonderful time of the year’ can bring with it several gatherings of family and friends and holiday activities. For those in treatment or living with cancer, the season may also take a particularly hard physical toll.

“The holidays can create new stresses for those living with cancer,” says Susan Gilmore, MS, ACSM, a certified oncology trainer who has been conducting and coordinating exercise programs for cancer survivors at Life with Cancer since 2003. “Questions such as ‘how can I take care of others when I have to take care of myself,’ or, ‘I’m so fatigued from my treatments, how can I possibly do more’ frequently arise.”

“The reality is, being active helps to lessen the symptoms of fatigue, anxiety, distress and sleeplessness that may occur from treatment,” explains Gilmore.

Staying active during the holidays may seem difficult, between the school plays and family dinners, but it’s incredibly important for those living with cancer. Not only can it reduce stress, but it may improve outcomes. When asked if exercising can prevent the reoccurrence of cancer, Gilmore states, “depending on the type of cancer, possibly. Research has shown that physical activity can reduce the possibility of re-occurrences of some types of breast, prostate or colon cancer.”

Common hurdles to exercise during the holidays are finding time and a location. Gilmore suggests, “you don’t need big chunks of time. 15 minutes several times a day will provide benefits.” She also says that you don’t need a gym membership to stay active. “Body weight movements are effective for muscle building. Walking, biking, gardening, tennis, basketball, hiking, and running after your children/ grandchildren will help to strengthen your cardiovascular system. Stretching can be done while watching TV or a movie at home.”

Socializing and maintaining strong mental health

person holding out a wrapped gift, with Christmas tree in backgroundSpending time with family and friends can bring holiday cheer to those living with cancer, but these social gatherings can be overwhelming and nerve-wracking for some.

“While the holidays can be a season of joy for many people, some people who are living with cancer may not feel as cheerful as they have other years for a variety of reasons,” says Alexandra Russo, MSW, LCSW, an oncology therapist at Life with Cancer. For some people it can feel overwhelming to have to talk about their diagnosis and cancer treatments, perhaps with people you haven’t seen in a long time, or to provide updates to more people than usual.”

With a busy social calendar, it’s important to prioritize, which may mean declining invitations depending on how you’re feeling.

“Make an effort to check in with yourself even more this time of year,” explains Russo. “Looking at the calendar, prioritizing and then scheduling events can be a way to ensure you are engaging in those activities that are important to you, while also accomplishing your everyday tasks that just can’t wait.”

Those living with cancer often ask themselves, “What if I don’t want to talk about how I’m feeling during a holiday party?” or “I don’t want it to feel different this year, just because I am living with cancer.” Before you arrive for a gathering, Russo recommends preparing for common questions you’re likely to be asked. “It is sometimes helpful to come up with a ‘one-liner’ in order to state your appreciation for someone asking how you are doing, while making it clear that you aren’t up to providing additional details at that time,” she explains.

And as for traditions, Russo says “it may be helpful to consider new or different traditions this year, to keep from comparing this year to years in the past.”

Eating healthy and maintaining your diet

Time-honored holiday recipes, traditions, hosting and gathering around the dinner table present certain challenges for those living with cancer. It’s important for those impacted by cancer, whether directly or indirectly, to understand how holiday meals may be different this year.

According to Lauren Fay, RD, CSO, LD, CNSC, a registered dietitian at Life with Cancer, “Cancer and cancer-related treatments can require alterations to normal diet patterns to help minimize the impact of side effects and maximize overall health.” These changes in eating habits and dietary restrictions can have a profound effect during the festive season.

“For those living with and undergoing treatment for cancer during the holidays, it is not uncommon to experience side effects that impact how foods are tolerated or the ability to participate in the preparation process,” says Fay.

Changes in appetite, taste preferences, and energy levels can make it important to consider altering some dishes traditionally served at holiday meal celebrations.

Fortunately, friends and families can help ease the pressure and burden. Fay advises that “communicating ahead of a holiday meal to come up with a plan of foods to be served is an important strategy to ensure there are options that work for everyone.” In addition, “Sharing and/or redistributing meal preparation and hosting responsibilities can be an important way caregivers and family help support someone living with cancer, especially if that individual is experiencing significant fatigue.”

Top takeaways for holiday wellness when living with cancer

KEEP MOVING: Keep up cardio, resistance training and stretching to help lessen fatigue, anxiety and sleeplessness.

  • Stretch: In front of the television or during downtime
  • Cardio: Invite family and friends to take a walk, bike ride or run
  • Intervals: 15-minutes of exercise a few times a day can provide benefits

MANAGE YOUR TIME & ENERGY: Reduce stress by communicating with family members, prioritizing obligations and planning ahead.

  • Communicate: Prepare a one-liner to express your appreciation and only share as much as you’re comfortable with
  • Prioritize: Decide what events you’re going to attend, and don’t be afraid to decline
  • Create new traditions: This year may be different than others, so create new traditions to keep yourself from comparing

EAT WISELY: Collaborate with family and friends to plan meals and use evidence-based resources for nutritional guidance.

  • Consult: Seek a registered dietitian for personalized guidance based on specific cancer and treatment type
  • Plan ahead: Discuss menu items and delegating food preparation and hosting responsibilities with your friends and family
  • Research: Use evidence-based resources such as the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Oncology Dietetic Practice Group to better understand nutrition recommendations

Additional online resources for living with cancer

Your medical team can be a great resource and provide you with personalized tips and guidance. If you’d like to learn more on your own, below are a few sites that may provide additional insight:

About the Inova Life with Cancer Program

Life with Cancer is Inova Schar Cancer Institute’s premiere provider of programs and services to help patients and their loved ones through the cancer experience. Life with Cancer offers resources for those seeking individual and group support services, as well as guidance personalized to your cancer treatment with a Registered Dietitian who specializes in oncology nutrition. Contact Life with Cancer at 703-206-5433, or lifewithcancer.org to access the best resources for your cancer journey – at no charge, no matter where you are receiving treatment.


  1. Jocelyn on January 8, 2019 at 10:48 am

    Is dr. Stephanie Ackerman a Brest surgeon ?

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