My diagnosis taught me to protect my energy so I can enjoy time doing what’s really important — without the added stress.

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Jayme Burrows/Stocksy United

The holiday season can be a hard time to navigate. Add on a cancer diagnosis, and it can get even more complicated.

After my breast cancer diagnosis in September 2014, I was overwhelmed with medical appointments, possible fertility preservation to consider, and preparing for a double mastectomy scheduled right after New Year’s Eve.

How was I supposed to think about the upcoming holidays and make sure my then 5-year-old son was happy while dealing with so much? It was rough.

After that first stressful holiday season following my diagnosis, I knew things needed to be different going forward. What I placed value on had changed.

Whether you are in active treatment or being more mindful about reducing stress and guarding your energy at any time after a cancer diagnosis, I have some very simple tips to share.

After that first stressful holiday season, I headed into the next one with a plan.

I was depleted from several months of chemo and surgeries. I was receiving my last radiation treatment the day before Thanksgiving. The mental and physical exhaustion was real.

I wrote out a list of all the holiday things I usually did, from shopping to hosting. Making a list helped me parse out what I really wanted to do, what I had to do, and what I considered too stressful.

I noticed that what brought me the most stress was cooking, shopping, hosting, attending, and decorating.

Once I made that list, I did hardcore calendar planning.

There were the things that had to happen (medical appointments and my son’s holiday recital, for example). And then there were the things I wanted to do that brought me joy.

It gave me clarity that maybe I didn’t want to do a presurgery breast reconstruction appointment a couple of hours before my son’s recital. I definitely wanted to spend a lot of time taking my son to the holiday ice rink at my local shopping plaza.

I considered all these things and adjusted where I could. Sometimes you can’t always change appointments, but sometimes you can.

Once I figured out what I would and would not be doing, I got whatever shopping associated with those things, like an ice rink pass and recipe ingredients, done in advance.

The calendaring session helped me see what holiday things I was fine letting go of.

For example, one change I made was scaling back on decorating. I now enjoy doing it on a smaller scale that requires much less time and energy.

I took the less is more approach and simply pared down. When it came to attending events or hosting, I just did less of all of it. I realized many holiday expectations get wrapped up in the expectations of others. Those things didn’t need to be my expectations, so I let them go.

I now feel good about curating a simple holiday season that fits my life as I go.

As the years have passed since my cancer diagnosis, I’ve become better at keeping holiday stress low with the do some, not all approach.

Do some cooking and baking, not all. It’s more important to me to bake my son’s favorite pumpkin bread with him and be fully present in the enjoyment of that time than to make all the treats and be stressed out. Sometimes that pumpkin bread comes from a box mix and not scratch.

It’s all about me checking in with myself on energy and stress levels, and adjusting as needed.

Do some, not all worked well for me with shopping, too. I like a bit of the hustle and bustle of shopping in the stores, but now do the bulk of my shopping online.

Attending holiday gatherings and activities became so much nicer when I decided I could still show up for some of it, but I didn’t have to stay for the duration and feel overextended.

I started to pick and choose carefully. I now ask myself: “Do I feel good after spending time with the people or doing the activities involved?” If I don’t, I won’t. Or perhaps I spend some time with some people doing some activities, but just in smaller doses based on my energy and stress levels at the time.

It is crucial to listen to your mind and body when making these decisions on where you allocate your energy. I’ve found holding boundaries with myself is everything.

It’s OK to tell the people you are spending holiday time with that your energy is low or you can’t stay for the entirety of any festivities.

Being intentional about having downtime to rest makes the holidays enjoyable. I have to be aware of what actually sounds relaxing. Spending a day doing holiday crafts with the kids might be relaxing to one and a nightmare for someone else.

It’s been helpful for me to remember to stick to the things I actually enjoy. It doesn’t have to be perfect, and my focus should be on making a good memory not tinged with stress.

I’ve figured out that it isn’t obvious to others what I have the bandwidth to do, so it’s on me to communicate with others about what can be expected of me.

If you are in active treatment, that might look like asking a host if it’s OK for you to rest in their guest room for a bit if you get tired. Or, it might look like simply taking inventory of your stress and energy levels, letting others know where you are at, and making adjustments.

One breast cancer organization I am involved with has traditionally had an annual holiday party in December. One year, we decided it was just too stressful to do it in December.

Everyone was fine with being flexible and switching our gathering up to an annual party in February instead. This taught me to look for new ways to apply flexibility where it makes sense, which helps reduce stress.

You might be sad during the holidays because in some way, cancer has affected you.

I know I struggle with daily fatigue and body pains as side effects of hormone therapy drugs I take to reduce the risk of recurrence. It’s a mental bummer when you lack energy, have to slow way down, or just don’t feel well during the holidays.

Feeling overwhelmed can be isolating, despite efforts to simplify things. I know in my role as community guide for the BC Healthline community that nobody else really gets that like others in the cancer community do. If you need support navigating the holidays after a diagnosis, I urge you to check in.

I hope you feel inspired to make simple adjustments to how you celebrate the season so you reduce stress and enjoy the things that are important to you.

Monica Haro was born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area where she is raising her son. She loves staying connected to the breast cancer community through her work as the community guide for BC Healthline and as production assistant with Wildfire Magazine. She has a passion for volunteering and serves on the board of directors with her local support group, Bay Area Young Survivors. Monica loves creative expression through writing and art. She has shown her breast cancer advocacy exhibit “Reconstructed: A Breast Cancer Documentation Project” with El Comalito Collective in Vallejo, California. You can connect with her on Instagram.