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Cancer and Celebrating the Holidays: Don’t turn Hari Raya into Hari Cry-ya!

Hari Raya, apart from its religious significance and month-long period of fasting, is also a time for celebration, feasting and socialising. But beyond the merry-making, brightly coloured clothes, soft drinks and kueh-kueh, how do we celebrate with someone going through a cancer journey?

While going through cancer treatment or recovery, celebrating may be the last thing on a person's mind. They may feel the stress of having to celebrate even though they don't want to. Or they might feel upset that they are unable to fully participate in the festivities.

As a friend or family member, you might worry that you could offend or upset someone going through cancer by talking about his illness during your Raya visitation. Maybe you're worried that you will dampen the mood or making it awkward for everyone.

We explore valuable tips for patients, friends and family members with Ms Ratna, mother of two and breast cancer survivor, and Ms Ernalisah Binte Mohamad Subhi, Senior Medical Social Worker, Department of Psychosocial Oncology, National Cancer Centre Singapore.

"I learnt to let go of expectations. After all, they're choosing to help with good intentions."

Preparing for Hari Raya

What were some changes to how your family celebrated Hari Raya?

My whole family was concerned about my health, so everyone was eager to chip in and help. As a family, we didn't change our normal way of preparing for Hari Raya. But I think the biggest change came from my own mental outlook. I had to acknowledge that there would be situations where I couldn't do what I used to do. So I just did what I could.

For example, I couldn't spend the whole day in the kitchen because it is very exhausting when you are recovering from treatment. My sisters took over to do the cooking. They cooked and sent food over for me and my family. I will always be grateful for their help.

Was it hard to adjust your personal way of thinking?

I'm glad I was able to adapt, because I'm a person who likes things to be tip top, you know? I have a certain way of doing things, so I had to learn to let go. My family was supportive and that helped me remind myself to concentrate on recovery. I had to stop myself from making comments or jumping in when I saw things being done in a different way. You can't expect everyone to do exactly what you do, the way you want. I learnt to let go of expectations. After all, they're all choosing to help with good intentions.

Expert's advice: Communication is really the key. If you're going through treatment or recovering from cancer, it's important to communicate what you feel you can do and what you can't to your family. You can still feel involved by giving input, such as deciding colours of the family outfits or the menu of the day, for example. Another great idea is to go for a drive with the family to see the Hari Raya decorations at Geylang Serai. 

"They thought I had to throw away a part of my body"

The dreaded "so, what happened to you" talk

Have friends or family members unknowingly done or said something offensive that made you feel uncomfortable?

My close family and friends were very good. They kept reminding me to rest and take care of myself. But sometimes, other people would have the wrong idea of what a lumpectomy is: removal of a lump in the breast. They would ask, "I heard about your operation. So, you buang?" (Translation: Throw away). Some people would confuse it with a mastectomy, and thought I had to "throw away" a part of my body.

How did you cope?

It's not easy but I was mentally prepared. I'm very open by nature and I felt comfortable explaining to people what happened to me. From there, there were opportunities to share stories and even pray together.

Expert's advice: For anyone wanting to talk to and support someone with cancer, we have to realise that everyone experiences cancer differently. So it doesn't help to use phrases like, "I understand what you're going through", or "I know someone who went through the same thing as you". While you may have good intentions, what a patient is going through is unique to themselves.

The key is the intention of the person asking. If you ask with good intentions, a patient might share. Assess the situation and ask in a neutral, non-offensive way, then observe if the patient wants to talk about it or not. It doesn't help if someone is struggling to accept themselves and they have friends and relatives constantly asking questions. You don't want to rub it in either, or say something unpleasant during Hari Raya. There is a saying in Malay: "kosong-kosong" (Translation: Zero-zero), which means to reset the score or start afresh, because Hari Raya is about forgiveness and starting anew.

How about people giving advice and information?

I was lucky to have a good doctor-patient relationship. I had trust in the medical staff and their advice. There definitely were instances where people wanted to offer advice or share things they have heard. Many of them have good intentions, but you really have to take some of the advice with a pinch of salt.

Expert's advice: There are a lot of people who want to jump in and help by sharing information and advice. Try listening to the patient instead and offer to find what information he or she may need, rather than pushing information to them. They're already dealing with a lot of information, and you don't want to confuse or even unknowingly share advice that may contradict what the medical team has told them. For example, the medical team may advise a patient with colon cancer to have leafy vegetables, and a well-meaning friend or family member may share articles from the internet about vegetarian diets or "plant-detox" which may not help the patient at all.

"Whatever you want to do for the patient, be aware, and be sensitive"

Hello there! – Planning a visit

What are some things to take note of when visiting friends or family member who are recovering from treatment for cancer?

For my family, we planned to receive visitors at my house for the first two days of the festive season. I tried to be grateful and think positive – after all, people do care, that's why they visit. If I felt tired, I would excuse myself from the visit and rest while my family continued to host the visitors.

It's always good practice to call ahead and check before you visit rather than make an unplanned visit.

Expert's advice: As a host, you might not want to offend someone by rejecting their visit. What you can do is provide an alternative, like a suitable time. The main consideration should always be the patient's well-being and recovery. To avoid crowded gatherings, you may wish to stagger large groups of visitors to come at different timings.

As a visitor, be respectful of the timings and what the patient needs. If a visit is not possible, you can consider a video or phone call, or even record and send a personal video message to the patient to let them know that you're thinking of them.