We’re fast approaching Christmas, while for those of the Jewish faith, Hanukkah begins in a weeks time. Whichever holiday you affiliate with, religious or not, one thing these days have in common, is the coming together of friends and family, often over tables groaning with food. Now while some people relish the opportunity to entertain the hordes. for many of us, it can be somewhat stressful. And for those going through treatment for cancer, this time of year can offer some unique challenges.
Here’s some ideas and ways you might be able to help make things easier for your loved one over this holiday season.
nb. I’ll be talking to both the person going through treatment, and their team of willing helpers.
Tip 1 : Managing Fatigue
Fatigue is a benign sounding word for a very debilitating side effect of treatment. Imagine being as tired as you’ve ever been, then double that, then double that again, then take an economy flight from New York to Sydney next to a crying baby, and turn around and go back again and you’re not even close to how bad fatigue can be for some people going through treatment. When fatigue sets in, everything hurts; your brain stops working and you need to sleep NOW. Unless you’ve experienced it, it’s very difficult to articulate how debilitating treatment-related fatigue can be.
If you’re the person going through treatment, this is the best excuse you’ll ever have for letting everyone else do all the work. My advice, is to put your feet up, have someone fetch you a cold drink (check with your doctor but most sources say it’s ok to enjoy alcohol in moderation while in treatment), and let everyone else worry about the details.
And don’t be afraid of letting people know what you need by way of their company. If fatigue is a problem for you let people know that you can only have company for short bursts before needing to take a nap or time out from conversation. It may be that you don’t have the energy to face a crowd and would prefer a smaller group around you this year, and that’s ok to say too. If you’re visiting, think about asking your hosts in advance if they have a guest room you can retreat to if needed. Conversely, you may want more company! It’s easy to send out an Update on CanDo that you are “now receiving visitors”.
If you’re the person hosting someone who has been having cancer treatment, making a quiet space available where they can “crash” if needed without judgment is a thoughtful way to support them. And don’t be offended if they can’t stay long. They came to see you so obviously you were worth the effort.
TIP: The Updates function inside the CanDo app can help you communicate your strategies for managing fatigue in a non-confrontational, non-judgmental manner. Let people know you’re having a small Christmas if that is your preference, or let them know you can only do short social engagements. Once they know what your boundaries are they will be more likely to plan ways to accommodate your needs.
Tip 2: What should I serve at my table?
Chemo, medication, radiotherapy or surgery can all impact on the person’s appetite or ability to eat certain foods. They might be feeling nauseous or have a sore mouth (oral thrush one of the many delights of cancer treatment). They might not be enjoying food while undergoing treatment. One person might have stopped eating meat, while another can only eat bland, soft food. So food can be a bit of a minefield especially when holiday meals tend to come from a pretty narrow set of recipes and expectations.
Here’s an infographic from Nutrition and Cancer, a guide from the Cancer Council NSW, that summarises some of the food issues people undergoing treatment might face (and that your loved one might not want to tell you because they don’t want to let you down).
You can read more from this guide about Nutrition and Cancer here.
My advice based on personal experience is to keep it simple.
Maybe start with a simple vegetable based soup (not too cold, not too hot). For the main meal something easy to spice up or down like poached chicken or a baked white fish with a side of carbs is ideal, followed by something smooth and custardy for dessert.
Nothing overly textural, overly spiced or acidic (heartburn is a common problem during chemo treatment). You can provide condiments or additional options for your guests who like things a bit spicier.
By all means, reach out to the person going through treatment and ask them what their eating preferences are. They can sometimes change drastically during treatment so even if you know what their favourite foods were before treatment, they may not want to eat that now (e.g. I was a staunch carnivore before chemo. My favourite meal was roast lamb. During chemo, meat made me nauseous and 8 years later I still can’t stomach it). A buffet with thoughtful choices where they can take what they want without feeling singled out is a good idea. People going through treatment want nothing more than to be “normal” again, so don’t make a fuss of their eating choices and bring attention to the problem. Avoid commenting on what they have or haven’t eaten. They’ll be even more conscious of it than you are and you may upset them despite good intentions.
Above all, don’t force someone to eat if they don’t feel like it. Just let it go and be led by what they need from you.
Remaining well hydrated is important, especially in Australia where Christmas is often a hot day. Good drinks to have on hand include fizzy water (can help with nausea), orange juice (can help dry mouth) and herbal teas to help settle the stomach (I like peppermint and lemon with ginger). Some no-sugar cordial can help mask the metallic taste that chemo patients often complain about in water.
A note about visiting and the societal pressure to “bring something” especially something edible. The person undergoing treatment can use the Updates function in CanDo to ask for what they’d prefer, as it may not be what you assume. For example, when I was sick, I didn’t want cakes and pastries, but had an unquenchable thirst for citrus. I didn’t want brownies, I wanted a bag of oranges. Now as my visitor who cares about me, you’d rather know that right? CanDo helps deliver the info you need to provide meaningful help.
TIP: Organise your team through the CanDo app and allocate tasks so that everyone brings something for the dinner table.
Tip 3: Popping to the Shops
Firstly, don’t. They’re horrible, packed with people and they’re full of things no one really needs. But if you, unlike Grinch me, enjoys Christmas shopping there are lots of ways to get what you’re looking for with minimal effort.
Of course the obvious solution is to shop online. There are lots of great stores you can go to buy what you need either for gifts, food, or vouchers, with great delivery turnaround.
Again, this is a great opportunity to tell people that because this year you’re only up to making minimal effort, their gifts will reflect that (ha!).
Some shops that I have purchased from this season without having to walk through the door include (nb. these are Australian-based, unpaid mentions and not endorsements either) :
Quirky gifts and lots of lovely items for everyone in the family:
Cotton basics, gifts, athletic wear for everyone in the family:
A good selection of books for everyone:
Interesting cosmetic and fragrance brands:
Electronics and an increasing array of household items including linen:
Liquor, wine, beer:
And of course you can find nearly any item you want on eBay and now Amazon. The large supermarket chains all deliver fresh food and alcohol as does Harris Farm and many local stores.
You might also consider removing the stress of shopping for individual gifts, and instead opt for gift vouchers that your gift recipient can use as they wish. You can find all sorts of gift cards in the major supermarkets (Woollies can deliver them with your groceries), or at the Post Office, or buy them online here.
TIP: If you’re not an experienced online shopper, why not create a task in CanDo and have someone on your team come and help you navigate your way to what you’re looking for?
Tip 4: Gifts for people undergoing treatment
Its my personal opinion that when you’re buying a gift for someone who is undergoing treatment for a serious illness that you don’t need to cater for their illness specifically (unless of course it is permanently disabling and some gifts just would not be appropriate in their new reality). People undergoing treatment often speak about not being defined by their illness, so think about the person they were B.C. (before cancer) and buy a gift that person would love.
However if they’re in the middle of harsh treatments like chemo, you might want to avoid anything with a strong fragrance, or food they may not be able to eat (crunchy, hard things etc). They may be especially grateful for comfy things (slippers, a lovely throw, a soft sweater or pajama pants) or gifts that help them occupy their time and mind (audio books, vouchers for streaming services, a beautiful notebook). To help them while they’re unwell they might appreciate meal delivery services (e.g. https://www.dinnerladies.com.au/) or a voucher for a cleaning or ironing service. For women, a trip to the beauty salon for a manicure or foot massage is a lovely way to spend time with a friend, while for men, it might be a ticket to an event they can attend with you in the near future. Demonstrating that you “get it” and intend to remain their friend now and into the future is a gift in itself for your friend with cancer.
TIP: CanDo helps you stay connected and is built for organising friends and family to help deliver what the person going through treatment really needs or wants.
So those are my tips for navigating Christmas, with cancer. For the person undergoing treatment, in a nutshell, take the opportunity to be spoiled and looked after. While if you’re on their team of willing helpers, hopefully these ideas give you inspiration for how you can make this Christmas a happy one.
I’d love to hear from you. Let me know what your tips are and what you find the biggest challenge during celebrations.