by Dr. Karen Syrjala, co-director of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center Survivorship Program
Surviving the holidays with one’s waistline, bank account and sanity intact can be challenging for everyone, but the season affords specific pitfalls—and opportunities—for cancer survivors who are mindful of staying healthy throughout the season and beyond.
If you’re a cancer survivor—or anyone who wants a healthier holiday and less stressful new year—try these tips:
1. Know your holiday stress points. Do certain family members put you on edge? Do you take on too much and then find you don’t have time for it all? Start by asking yourself what makes you feel most pressured or irritable, and then what choices do you have to make this stress more manageable? If you have to see a difficult relative, can you arrange something fun afterward? This way you can remind yourself that in a few hours you’ll be doing something that you enjoy. It will help you get through a potentially difficult time.
2. Are there holiday events or traditions you could live without? Can you gracefully bow out of gatherings or obligations you no longer enjoy? Do you really need to bake all those cookies? Can this be the year you send a Christmas email or a link to your Facebook page instead of all those cards?
3. Are there non-holiday events you could postpone for a week or two? If your holiday to-do list is longer than Santa’s, perhaps schedule your next routine CT scan or mammogram after the holidays.
4. Remember your precious people. Schedule “together time” with those who may need you the most this holiday season, or those you most want to see. By scheduling ahead you can make sure you make time for what matters most to you. Our bodies and brains respond positively in lots of ways to time spent connecting with those we are close to; consider this important for your health during the holidays.
5. Keep moving. Physical activity is the clearest step you can take to benefit your health during the holidays and any time of year. It is certain to make you feel good and help your body and brain to function better. It can even reduce your cancer-related risks. Make opportunities to walk or take stairs for at least 10 minutes at a time. If exercising alone is hard, check with your local gym to see if they have a program for cancer survivors. Always consult with your doctor before beginning an exercise routine.
6. Practice healthy nutrition. Know what foods help you feel and do your best, then focus more on giving your body what it needs (such as fruits and vegetables) and less on trying to avoid certain foods. Eat sweets in moderation and make sure you also get protein, fiber and healthful fats. Eat healthy food before going to a party so it is easier to indulge in moderation. Make an appointment with a nutritionist if you are unsure what is healthy for you or if you have digestion problems.
7. Know how alcohol affects your health. Alcohol use has been associated with an increased risk of certain cancers. If you drink, do so in moderation (one drink a day for women and two for men). Before a social event, plan ahead what and how much you’ll drink. Alternate between alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks, such as sparkling water with lime, to help pace yourself and stay hydrated. If it’s hard to say no once you’ve started drinking, then plan to stick with non-alcoholic drinks.
8. Relax your body and mind. When you are more relaxed you sometimes get more done—and feel better doing it. When you feel wound up or overwhelmed, take five minutes to breathe deeply and scan your body from head to toe. Close your eyes and breathe in through your nose to a count of four, hold your breath for a count of two, breathe out through your mouth for a count of four, and repeat. Check your forehead, jaw and tongue for tightness, relax; then check your neck and shoulders, stretch and move them to find a comfortable position, then continue with your arms, chest, abdomen and legs. You can even breathe and relax your body while driving—just don’t close your eyes!
9. Tend to your body’s needs. Notice if there are parts of your body that aren’t working well. Make a list and an appointment with your doctor for after the holidays. Talk with your doctor if you have fatigue that hasn’t improved with time; mental fog that makes it hard to work or remember things; neuropathy (numbness or pain in your feet, hands or elsewhere), incontinence or other problems that affect your quality of life. Knowing you have a plan for attending to these problems can ease your mind during the holidays and let you focus on other things.
10. Have a long-term plan for your survivorship care. Schedule an appointment to go over your survivorship needs if you aren’t sure about your risks for long-term problems or you aren’t sure what symptoms to watch for to maintain your health. Tap into a survivorship program to help you detail a survivorship care plan to share with your primary care provider. Make appointments now so you can forget about them during the holidays.
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