Cancer and SAD – tips for coping with winter blues when you have cancer

If you suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), winter is always difficult time – but if you also have cancer the challenge is even greater. We’ve put together some tips for coping with the ‘winter blues’….

Almost one person in three suffers from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) and women are 40 per cent more likely to suffer from SAD than men.

As well as making you feel low, SAD can cause oversleeping, irritability and sensitivity, and changes in your appetite – leading to weight gain or loss. Does this sound familiar? If you have been diagnosed with cancer or are undergoing cancer treatment, have your SAD symptoms have become worse – or did they start after you were diagnosed with cancer?

We’ve put together some tips, advice and recommendations to help you to get through winter.

Why does SAD affect us in winter?

It’s estimated that over half of all UK adults think that their general mood is worse in winter and four in every 10 suffer from fatigue. Less daylight during winter months causes our melatonin levels to go up. Melatonin helps to control sleep and our body cycle; when there’s less daylight, we produce too much and can start to feel lethargic and low – typical SAD symptoms.  At the same time, lack of sunlight causes our serotonin levels to drop. Serotonin is a brain chemical and reduced levels can lead to depression.

Added to the emotional impact of a cancer diagnosis and side effects of cancer treatment – radiotherapy and chemotherapy deplete the immune system, leaving you more susceptible to colds, flu and other winter bugs, and hormone-suppressive treatment can affect your melatonin levels – it’s no wonder that winter can be a challenging time.

If you are living with cancer or are having cancer treatment and are experiencing SAD-type symptoms, do consult your GP promptly. It’s important to get a correct diagnosis and your GP can advise you on a suitable course of treatment, if that’s appropriate.

Our five-point plan to help you feel better in winter

If you’re feeling worse in winter, our five-point plan will give your immune system a boost and could help ease your SAD symptoms:

  • Eating well in winter
  • Moving in winter
  • Winter vitamins and supplements
  • SAD lights in winter
  • Making the most of winter

Eating well in winter

Cancer treatment, such as chemotherapy, can affect your appetite; you may not feel like eating, let alone eating well. But aim to follow the Mediterranean diet principles, as far as possible, and you’ll be taking a major step forward.

Make your meals colourful and varied, even if you can eat only small amounts. A meal packed with colour is more appetising, and a varied diet is essential for good gut health. We’re learning more all the time about the importance of a healthy gut, for example, in supporting the immune system and suppressing inflammation, both of which are important when you have cancer. Limit your consumption of meat and dairy products and eat plenty of plant-based foods. Be sure to include:

  • Pulses – chickpeas, lentils, soybeans and other pulses are full of protein. Use in winter casseroles, tagines and add to veg-packed soups.
  • Greens – have plenty of green vegetables such as cabbage, broccoli, kale, sprouts and spring greens with your main meal and add to smoothies and tasty soups.
  • Seeds and nuts – ideal snack foods or add to muesli and porridge for breakfast. High in protein, polyunsaturated fats and acids, and vital minerals.
  • Fish – if you enjoy fish, have at least two helpings of oily cold-water varieties, such as salmon, sardines, mackerel or herring, every week.
  • Fruit – fresh, dried, or cooked – all are good for you. Use a blender to create easily digestible fruit purées or add to smoothies.

The Live Better With Cancer online shop has some excellent diet and recipe books – to help you eat well throughout the year, not just in winter!

(If you want to learn more about why eating well is so important when you have cancer, we think you’ll find this podcast, featuring Dr Rupy Aulja (of The Doctor’s Kitchen) and oncologist, Dr Ailsa Lumsden, helpful.)

Exercising in winter

When you have cancer, it can be hard to summon up the energy or motivation to get moving but cancer specialists recommend that, if possible, patients should exercise regularly to aid recovery. Start with a lunchtime walk, or use simple exercise equipment at home. If you can get to a class, yoga and Pilates can improve flexibility and strength; try keep up your practice at home, with a book or DVD.

Live Better With Cancer community member, Ian, attended a wellbeing session at his local council gym and was given a six-week exercise plan. It was, he says, ‘The start of regaining strength, stamina, stability which was lost during chemo.’

If it’s difficult or too tiring to join a class, try the hand, arm and pedal exercisers in the Live Better With Cancer light exercise equipment section.

You’ll find the full range of Live Better With Cancer recommended exercise products and books here.

Winter vitamins and supplements

There is growing evidence to support Vitamin D’s importance in keeping us healthy; it’s great for our bones and sleep, and for enhancing mood. The best way to get Vitamin D is with daily sunshine but UK weather isn’t that helpful; it’s impossible to get the full amount of Vitamin D that we need just from being outside.

Ask your GP to check your Vitamin D levels; if they are low, he or she may recommend a Vitamin D supplement, provided that it does not affect any other medication you may be taking. Vitamin D works best when taken with Vitamin K2 and magnesium, ask your GP, or a qualified naturopath, for advice on what to take.

St John’s Wort (Hypericum) has also been shown to be effective in lifting mild depression.  (NB Not suitable if you are taking prescription anti-depressants.)

Always check with a qualified medical professional to ensure that supplements are suitable for you and won’t affect any other medication you might be taking.

SAD lights in winter

Many people who suffer from SAD find that a special SAD light can lift their mood and improve their sleep. They work by creating artificial daylight, which helps to regulate melatonin levels and can be used at home and at work.

Live Better With Cancer customer, Janice, says that a SAD light was just what she needed, ‘What a difference having some more light makes. As winter rolls in I have found this really helps to uplift my mood, especially after a long day at the hospital!’

SAD Light – 10000 Lux – available from Live Better With

 

Making the most of winter

Danish winters are long and dark but Danes are reported to be the world’s happiest people, perhaps because they have cultivated the art of hygge – enjoying the moment. In winter, it means embracing cosy living; for example, meeting friends, or inviting them round, for a hot chocolate, and having a pile of comfy cushions and a throw or blanket or two to curl up in. Why not start with a weekly hygge evening and see how you get on?

(Recent research suggests we should go easy on the candles so beloved of the Danes; candles may look inviting but used in excess they might not not great for our health.)

Get the help you need to deal with SAD

If you are struggling with severe symptoms, don’t suffer in silence. Tell your loved ones how you are feeling and consult your GP, as counselling, therapy or other treatment could help. The mental health charity, MIND, has a useful guide to SAD and treatments currently available in the UK.

 

Visit the Live Better With Cancer Community Forum – for information, advice, and tips and to share your own questions and suggestions.

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