What might you experience ?

Big family gatherings and seasonal celebrations can be stressful or tiring at the best of times. But when you or a loved one is going through cancer, the stakes (and stress levels) can feel a lot higher.

The pressure to spend time with family, to have a ‘perfect’ holiday season, or to carry on as if cancer isn’t happening can be difficult to cope with. So we’ve put together some tips and things to think about if you’re dealing with cancer during a special occasion.

This guide includes:

  • Food and special meals
  • Staying on top of your treatment
  • Tiredness and fatigue
  • Challenging emotions and thoughts
  • Being in hospital

What can you do about it?

Food and special meals

Food and special meals

  • Most special occasions involve food - and there’s often a lot of it, especially if you’re part of a big family. But if you’re going through chemo or radiotherapy, or feeling unwell, you might be experiencing some side effects that interfere with your eating habits, like nausea, digestive issues, or mouth troubles. However, with a little compromise and communication, there are still ways you can enjoy some festivities.

  • Perhaps the big family meal associated with Christmas, Thanksgiving and other holidays seems a bit daunting during treatment. You might be able to still eat the same as everyone else, just in smaller portions - if you can make people aware of that before the meal, they could prepare you a smaller plate. Or maybe the meal could be served in a 'help yourself', buffet-style format - that way you can eat as much or as little as you want, and avoid foods that might not agree with you. 

  • If the types of food traditionally served at your big occasion aren't ones you can stomach during treatment, perhaps it's an opportunity to try out some new traditions? There are lots of cookbooks designed for people going through cancer treatment, so maybe you could pick out some exciting new recipes to try together.

  • If you're usually the person in charge of the cooking, but don't feel up to it this year due to nausea or fatigue - take the opportunity to have a break! Ask someone else to do the cooking for you, or take the family out for dinner instead. 

  • Lots of holidays and special occasions involve drinking alcohol - you might be able to join in if you want to, even during treatment. But it's definitely something you should check with your doctor first, as alcohol can cause some medications to be less effective, or could interact badly and make you very sick.

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Staying on top of your treatment

Staying on top of your treatment

  • It can be good to know where you stand in terms of medical appointments, dates, and test results. If you’re in the middle of treatment, you’ll want to know when your clinic is open over the holidays, whether your usual doctors will be taking time off over the holiday, and who will be the on-call doctor or nurse you can get in touch with should anything arise.

  • If you’re waiting for test results over the holidays, it’s a good idea to get a firm deadline from your medical team if you can. With a solid idea of when you should expect news, it might be easier to get a little bit of relief from the worry surrounding scans and results.

  • Talk to your doctor or nurse about any medications you’ll be needing over the holidays - you might need a backup supply in case of different clinic opening hours or if you’re travelling. If you can anticipate being affected by a certain side effect, discuss it with your doctor and see if there’s anything they could prescribe to help you have an easier time. For example, if there will be a lot of cooking or large meals happening and you’re worried about feeling nauseous, you could ask about anti-nausea medications. ​

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Tiredness and fatigue

Tiredness and fatigue

Your treatment might have left you feeling fatigued and depleted, with little energy for socialising or doing much more than chilling out in bed - which is exactly what you need to do to help you recover. Just because there's a holiday or a big event happening, doesn't mean you should put your rest and recovery time on hold to party. But there are still plenty of ways you can be part of the festivities.

  • Rest when you need to. If it's going to be a long day of welcoming visitors, spending time with family, meals and activities, try to schedule in some downtime for yourself and stick to it. Try taking it easy for an hour or two in the morning and afternoon, and having an early night. People will understand that you need some time alone to recover your energy, and if it means you can make it to some parts of the day, they'll just be happy you made it at all!
  • Manage expectations. If you're going out, visiting others, or people are coming round to see you, let them know beforehand what you're likely to be able to do, and what will be too tiring. Maybe you can make it to a party, but only for an hour. Or maybe you can't make it to visit your relatives this year, as the drive is too long and exhausting. If you discuss it in advance, you can come up with a plan or some alternatives, and avoid feeling pressured to stay for longer, visit when you're too tired, etc. 

  • Prioritise activities. Last year, you might have held a dinner party, followed by drinks, followed by a night out, then brunch the next day and a drive to visit ten different family members, before heading home to cook a huge dinner. If you're going through cancer, it's a good idea to pace yourself, and leave some serious wiggle room in your plans. Think about what you really want to do, and prioritise that over things you do out of habit, tradition, or feeling pressured. You have a limited reserve of energy at the moment, so you deserve to spend it on things you really value.

 

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Challenging emotions and thoughts

Challenging emotions and thoughts

Special occasions and holidays are a precious time for many people, which can make the intrusion of cancer particularly painful or difficult to cope with. You might be feeling grief for the loss of things you could do last year, or worrying about seeing family while you're not feeling quite yourself.

  • Remember, there’s no normal way to feel when you're going through cancer. At significant times of the year, some people will think about how different their life feels compared to previous years, some will think about moving forwards, and some will just want to try and forget about their diagnosis completely. You should do what feels comfortable for you, at that moment, on that day - and help the people around you to understand and respect your feelings.

  • Being surrounded by cheerfulness can feel exhausting when you’re trying to keep up a facade of positivity - allow yourself to have quiet moments when you don’t feel 100% festive, and talk to people around you if you need to tone things down a bit.

  • Speaking to someone you trust before the big event or gathering can help you both to figure out what kind of celebration feels appropriate for everyone - ​it's very likely that your family and friends are having some difficult thoughts or feelings, too, and it could be helpful to be open with each other about them.

  • If friends and family are gathering to have a meal or drinks out somewhere, it's okay to bow out if you're not feeling up to it. Being around people who don't know you well or know the details of your diagnosis might make you feel anxious about their reactions. So if you'd rather keep things low-key and intimate this year, let people know in advance and don't feel obliged to go out when you don't have the energy. If you're not sure, or would like to go out 'just for a bit', letting people know in advance can help to avoid that awkward feeling when you need to go home but don't want to offend the party host.

  • If you're feeling overwhelmed, and unable to confide in the people around you, there are a lot of helplines open over the holidays. Taking a short walk and chatting to a stranger on the end of the phone might feel strange at first, but it can be a great way of unloading your feelings and figuring things out without worrying about placing a burden on loved ones during the holidays.

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Being in hospital

Being in hospital

Nobody wants to be in the hospital during a big holiday or a special occasion. But if you need to be in hospital for a significant period, there are a few things you and your loved ones can do to make it a bit less rubbish.

  • If you're in the ward over a holiday, try decorating your area to add a bit of festive cheer. You could put up a string of cards, some fake plants, or even some battery-powered fairy lights. You can even get electric mini Christmas trees, menorahs and kinaras to brighten up the place.
  • Missing your family and friends is tough at the best of times, but if you're in hospital you could feel really left out. Scheduling time to have a phone call or video chat with your loved ones could help you feel a little bit more connected. 
  • If you're able to eat, you might be missing the home-cooked traditional holiday meals you'd normally have with your family. Maybe your visitors could bring you a little bit of festive food - sharing homemade goodies around the ward is a surefire way to feel a tiny bit more at home.
  • Check out our blog post about Being In Hospital During The Holidays for loads more tips and suggestions on how to brighten up your time on the ward.
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Last but not least...

Last but not least...

  • If you have any of your own tips and tricks for enjoying special occasions while you have cancer, we'd love to hear them. You can share them with us and our whole community on our Facebook or Twitter pages, or by emailing us at theteam@livebetterwith.com. 
  • Check out more of our Community Tips for hundreds of community suggestions on lots of other aspects of living with cancer.