Christmas is traditionally a time for meeting up with family and friends, making merry and enjoying plenty of food and drink. But if you have cancer it can feel difficult to join in the festivities – especially if you are tired, dealing with the side effects of treatment, or just don’t feel much like celebrating.
Here is Live Better With’s guide to coping during the festive season…
Deciding what’s most important
If you’re dealing with cancer, you might not feel able to do everything you might normally do at Christmas. Think about what’s most important to you this year, and what you will enjoy the most (such as Christmas lunch, or the present-opening), and make sure you build in plenty of time around those things.
Talk to friends and family about how you’re feeling, and the kind of Christmas you would like to have. You might want to keep things simpler and more low-key, perhaps spending time nearer to home with close family, and avoiding larger gatherings or longer journeys.
It’s important to have realistic expectations and to be flexible. Excessive tiredness, or fatigue, is a common side effect of cancer treatment, and seeing visitors can be exhausting.
Don’t be afraid to say no to things, or take some time out if you need to. It can help to talk to a friend or family member, and arrange in advance for them to take you home if you need to leave early, helping to reduce any pressure you might feel.
Ringing the changes
Christmas is such a busy time, and it can be even more of a challenge when you’re dealing with cancer. On top of hospital visits, treatment and dealing with any side effects, you also have to think about choosing and wrapping gifts, buying and preparing food, decorating the house… and it’s easy to try and take on too much. This can all be physically and emotionally overwhelming.
Ask for help
Christmas is a time of tradition, but don’t feel that you have to do everything in the same way, or do it all on your own! Ask friends and family to help, whether it’s with travelling to appointments, cooking or food shopping, helping with the children, doing the household chores, delivering the Christmas cards, or even putting up the decorations.
When it comes to buying gifts, you could consider giving gift vouchers this year. There are some great gift experience vouchers available on the internet, for that personal touch. Buying your gifts and food supplies online can save both time and energy.
Medication, treatments and tests – planning ahead
It’s important to keep on top of your medication over Christmas. Many medical centres have reduced opening hours, so make sure you have enough medication to cover the festive season – including some extra anti-nausea medication if you suffer from sickness. You should also find out who to contact if you need any assistance during the holidays.
If you’re due to have any tests before Christmas, try to find out when the results will be available, to help reduce any anxiety you may feel while waiting for them. If you have treatments scheduled, talk to your team about the possibility of adjusting the timings if you need to.
Dealing with food and drink at Christmas
There are normally copious amounts of food and drink around at Christmas, and this can pose a particular challenge for people with cancer. You may have problems with feeling sick (nausea), changes in taste, a reduced appetite, or stomach issues.
Dealing with nausea
Cooking smells can make nausea worse – you can help to minimise the effects by keeping the room well ventilated and avoiding any strong-smelling foods. Avoid cooking when you are feeling ill – it can help to prepare food in advance. There are also special recipe books designed for people with cancer, so you could try something that suits your particular needs. And don’t be afraid to buy in some ready-made items! Alternatively, you could suggest that everyone goes out this year for a special treat instead.
Meals and drinking
When it comes to eating a meal, buffets are often the easiest option, as they allow you to choose whatever you feel like eating. However, if you’re having a sit-down lunch it’s worth asking the host if they can provide smaller portions, or put the food into serving dishes so that you can help yourself to however much you want.
If you don’t feel up to eating a meal, make sure you have some high energy snacks to hand, for a quick and easy calorie boost.
And if you do want to have a drink or two, just make sure you check with your medical team beforehand (it is recommended to avoid alcohol while having any cancer treatment). Remember not to overdo it though, as alcohol is a depressant and too much might make you feel worse.
At this time of year it can be more difficult to keep up with your normal routines, but it’s particularly important to make sure you get enough time to rest and recuperate.
It’s a good idea to schedule in a rest break in the morning and the afternoon, to allow you to recharge your batteries. Try to go to bed at a regular time, too.
If you’re finding things a bit overwhelming, remember to take a break. If you’re going to be away from home, take some home comforts with you, such as a comfortable cushion and blanket. Taking some time out and relaxing for a while with an iPad, a relaxation CD, a good book or a nice long bath can help to restore both body and mind.
Dealing with emotions at Christmas
Christmas is promoted as a time of happiness, celebration and goodwill to all – whatever the reality may actually be! This can put additional pressure on people who may be going through a difficult time.
Christmas can also be a time of reflection, and if you’re dealing with cancer it’s common to experience some challenging emotions and thoughts, and the pressure of other people’s expectations – or even your own – can make things worse.
It’s important to recognise that you may be feeling tired, sad, anxious or overwhelmed, and that such feelings are normal. Give yourself permission to feel these things, and some time and space to work through your feelings. If you’re finding it difficult to cope, talk to someone you trust. Support groups and online forums can also be a helpful source of advice.
“Talk with someone you trust and express your feelings. It’s hard to start talking, but so, so much better when you do.” Linda, Live Better With Community Member
Many people also find relaxation techniques, such as breathing exercises, mindfulness and using aromatherapy oils can be very helpful. The Little Book of Mindfulness contains a range of short, useful exercises to help you relax, de-stress and focus on the moment at hand.
Feeling more confident at Christmas
While many people are getting into the party spirit, it may be that you are dealing with some physical changes as a result of surgery or treatment, which can be particularly challenging at this time.
If you’re dealing with hair loss, there are a number of different headwear options you could try, including a wide range of pretty headscarves, hats or wigs. Meanwhile, if your complexion is feeling lacklustre, using natural cosmetics can help to give you a boost.
Choosing clothes you feel comfortable in, and wearing accessories which accentuate your favourite features, can also help you to feel more confident and in control.
Staying in hospital at Christmas
While nobody wants to have to spend time in hospital at Christmas, there are some things you can do to help make your time there a little brighter and more comfortable.
You can try making things a bit more festive, by decorating the area around your bed with some tinsel or Christmas cards. Bringing in your favourite comfy slippers and dressing gown can help you to feel more at home.
It’s worth asking your medical team if friends and family can bring in some festive treats. And if you feel up to it, why not ask them to bring in some playing cards or board games?
During non-visiting hours you can help to keep yourself occupied with an iPad, a tablet or a good book. The Live Better With community recommend using a tablet cushion to keep your device comfortably in place, without you having to hold on to it. You can also use your device to keep in regular contact with loved ones via messaging and video calls, helping you to feel more connected at Christmas.
Fnd support, ask questions, and share your tips for living better with cancer in the Live Better With cancer community forum.