Caring Currents

How to Celebrate the New Year -- with Cancer

Last updated: Dec 31, 2008


During this season of family gatherings, holiday parties, and social outings, community members have expressed many concerns about how much socializing is healthy and safe for cancer patients. One reader wondered whether it's safe for her mother, who's being treated for breast cancer, to be around the grandchildren, or if she'd be at risk for catching a cold or flu. Another member, Elizabeth, was concerned about the drastic temperature change if her mother, who has carcinoma, traveled from Miami to North Carolina to visit family. Another reader worried about her father's annual New Year's Eve poker game, asking if it was OK for him to drink while doing chemotherapy?   With those concerns in mind, here are some thoughts on how to address holiday-related cancer concerns.

  1. Is it safe for someone with cancer to socialize, or should they avoid being exposed to germs? The reason this issue comes up so much is that some cancer patients have low white blood cell counts as a result of chemotherapy, which weakens their immune systems. Sometimes doctors will caution cancer patients with low white counts to avoid exposure to infection. But unless someone in your family is sick or highly infectious, this is probably not a reason to keep your loved one with cancer at home. In general, experts agree that unless the person you love with cancer is severely immune compromised, the benefits of socializing far outweigh the risks.
  2. Will socializing tire my parent with cancer out too much? Socializing can indeed be tiring, but staying home alone can cause fatigue of a different kind. Loneliness and isolation are very real factors for many cancer patients, and it's all too easy for depression to set in as well. A good compromise is to keep visits short, and plan ahead so your loved one with cancer can enjoy the visit without becoming too fatigued. Find him a comfortable place to sit where he's in the midst of the action, and make sure he has plenty to eat and drink. Be alert to signs that your parent's is tiring and make your excuses before he becomes overwhelmed.
  3. Will seeing someone with cancer make others sad or uncomfortable? I can't tell you how often I hear about those with cancer avoiding parties and social gatherings because they fear they'll be a "downer" or make the gathering less fun for others. "People notice that I look different and then don't know what to say," one cancer patient said, while another worried that "Not knowing what to talk to me about makes people nervous." My answer is, while those moments of discomfort do happen once in awhile, they tend to occur with the people who matter less. The friends and family you've come to see will be thrilled to see you and your presence will make the gathering more meaningful and memorable to those who attend. it's important for cancer patients to get out and overcome their fears of embarrassment and discomfort because this is life -- things aren't always the way we wish they were and friends and family are what help us through those hard times. 
  4. Is chemotherapy or cancer contagious to others? This one's easy -- no and no. Chemotherapy drugs affect only the cancer patient taking them, and cancer is not contagious in any way. Some readers have mistakenly worried that blood and bodily fluids of cancer patients pose a risk, but this is not true; there is no way for anyone to "catch" cancer or be affected by a cancer patient's chemotherapy.
  5. Is it safe to drink alcohol while being treated for cancer? A general answer is that alcohol is safe in moderation, but there are exceptions, so you might want to discuss this with the doctor before your loved one raises a glass. Those with liver cancer or liver metastases, for example, should avoid alcohol, as should anyone whose liver is compromised. And some studies have shown a higher rate of recurrence among breast cancer patients who drink heavily. As for the concern that alcohol could interfere with chemotherapy, this isn't true for most chemotherapy drugs, but there are a few exceptions. Again, the safest bet is to ask your doctor about the specific chemotherapy agents the person you're caring for is taking.

Toast to New Beginnings

All in all, there's no reason that having cancer should interfere with ringing in the new year in style. Those of us in Cancer World have much to celebrate: we're here, we're fighting back, and we're ready to make the most of every moment.