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Winter’s Wrath: What Cancer Patients Need to Cope

I’ve lived my entire life in the harsh Canadian climate and over the years the winters have become ingrained in me. It seems like I’ve endured too many winters to count and the last six of them have been as a cancer patient and cancer survivor. For the over 1 million inhabitants of Calgary, Alberta, the local winters are long, bitter and frigid. The season seems to last forever and the extended deep freeze is only interrupted by the occasional chinook. Not surprisingly, our comparatively short summers are relished and savoured. The months of July and August are like manna from heaven and offer a precious respite from the unrelenting severity of our climate.

Studies have revealed that winter is especially daunting for cancer patients—it’s a time of year that represents an assortment of physical, emotional and psychological challenges to anyone unfortunate enough to be battling cancer. For cancer patients, warmer climates and summer months can be much easier to tolerate. Given this fact, here are some of my recommendations for those of us condemned to endure another prolonged winter.

Get a Flu Shot

On a physical health level, influenza and the common cold abound during the winter months. Cancer and standard cancer treatments, such as chemotherapy and radiation therapy, frequently weaken the immune system, which helps fight off these infections. People with cancer or a history of the disease are more likely to have serious complications if they get the flu. Some other high risk groups include pregnant women, young children, people over 65, and those diagnosed with lung disease, heart disease or diabetes, They are more likely to end up in the hospital, some might even die from flu-related problems. Getting a flu shot is strongly recommended for most people with cancer as well as cancer survivors. Their family members are normally encouraged to get flu shots, too.

 

Winter

 

Stay Warm

I strongly suggest that you have a wardrobe of warm winter clothes on hand, including sweaters, parkas, boots and gloves. Deprived of the warmth of summer, individuals with cancer may be at above average risk for hypothermia and other dangerous medical conditions triggered by cold temperatures. When our body can’t produce enough heat to stay warm, hypothermia occurs. Certain medications and medical disorders associated with cancer or cancer treatment can interfere with our body’s natural ability to adjust its temperature. Dehydration, a common side effect of cancer treatment, and having a low amount of body fat may also increase this risk. In addition, some cancer patients who are unable to be physically active may have reduced blood flow, which can lead to hypothermia.

Don’t be SAD

Ultimately there is the emotional and psychological impact of the winter season. Weather often affects people’s moods. Sunlight breaking through clouds can lift our spirits, while a dull, rainy day may make us feel slightly gloomy. While noticeable, these shifts in mood generally don’t affect a person’s ability to cope with daily life. As cancer patients, however, we are sometimes more vulnerable to a type of depression that follows a seasonal pattern. For some people living with cancer, the shortening days of late autumn are the beginning of a type of clinical depression that can last until spring. This condition is called “Seasonal Affective Disorder,” or SAD. Luckily there are ways to cope, sitting near a window or getting outside for a short period of time each day can help. Light box therapy is a popular and often very effective way to cope with mild Seasonal Affective Disorder. The lights are effective because they mimic the sun’s rays.

Pursue a Hobby

Winter is the season to take on an indoor hobby, this is especially true if you are facing cancer. When cancer patients undertake these activities, whether individually or with the guidance of a creative art therapist, they stand to benefit psychologically and emotionally. Recently there’s been a trend toward simple or old-fashioned crafts and hobbies such as knitting. Other common winter diversions include baking, building scale models or simply getting lost in a good book. Some adults, including myself, are even using colouring books to relax and reduce daily stress. This concept started several years ago with the publication of Johanna Basford’s Secret Garden. Her colouring book for adults has since been translated into 14 languages and has sold over one million copies.

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My Relationship With Food: Part I

One of the classic symptoms of ovarian cancer, especially as it becomes more advanced, is a feeling of fullness when you try to eat and a general lack of appetite. This was my experience as I tried to eat meals and enjoy food prior to my diagnosis, something was definitely wrong, but I didn’t know what it was. Throughout my life I’ve always had what I consider to be a positive relationship with food. As a small boned and extremely petite woman I enjoy eating from a full range of food groups—I’ve never been obsessed about dieting trends, such as low carb diets or low fat diets. Even before my cancer diagnosis I was a health conscious individual, aware of the strong connection between our physical and mental health and proper nutrition. I would deliberately avoid such temptations as eating large quantities of prepackaged or processed foods or dining regularly at fast food restaurants. I generally prefer the wonderful taste of home cooking and meals prepared from scratch anyway.

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As my symptoms progressed I was sometimes just going through the motions of eating, and I wished that the doctors would find out what was wrong so my meals would be pleasurable again. Leading up to my diagnosis, even many of my favourite foods such as homemade spaghetti sauce, fresh stir-fries and strawberry smoothies were quickly losing their appeal! I ultimately had a hysterectomy performed in the fall of 2011, one week following my surgery the pathology report came back positive for uterine and ovarian cancer. I was in shock and emotionally devastated, but at least I knew what the enemy was that was trying so hard to destroy my life and my relationship with food! What is more, my cancer journey had begun. I was immediately referred to Calgary’s Tom Baker Cancer Centre where I underwent a highly specialized surgery to remove my remaining ovary and to more accurately stage my disease.

My second surgery was performed on December 13, 2011, and much to my consternation I nearly spent Christmas Day in a hospital bed. While it came as a relief when I was discharged on Christmas Eve, a scrumptious turkey dinner was definitely not going to be part of the celebration for me. I could still hardly stomach solid food. There had been complications following my surgery in the form of a partial bowel blockage. My situation was unfortunate, but perhaps not surprising. Not only had I undergone two surgeries within about six weeks of each other, during the second procedure my surgeon chose to remove a section of my small bowel in order that it may be tested for cancer. I experienced severe nausea and vomiting in the days following this operation and they used just about every medication in their arsenal to get it under control. At one point we even placed a patch commonly used to treat seasickness behind my ear!

Hospital Food

As soon as I was recovering at home, my mother made a special effort to prepare meals that are my favourites, we both hoped that my appetite would return to normal and that I would gain weight. It was wonderful to taste home cooking again after nearly two weeks on hospital food, but I could sense that something wasn’t exactly right in terms of my digestion. Meanwhile I was assaulted with more bad news, the pathology report from my second surgery revealed that cancer cells had spread to some of my abdominal lymph nodes. It was recommended that I undergo six rounds of chemotherapy, which I started almost immediately. I was given the customary warning about nausea and about how people on chemotherapy often experience a lack of appetite. Typical symptoms also include, constipation and a metallic taste in your mouth that impairs the normal flavour of certain foods.

Once my treatments began, I became completely focused on making it through my chemotherapy and I assumed that the bowel blockage issue that I had experienced was resolved. As my symptoms such as nausea and constipation grew worse, I just attributed it to the carboplatin that I was receiving every three weeks intravenously or to the other medications that I was taking. Soon I was forcing myself to eat what little I could—and even more disturbing was the fact that I hadn’t gained any weight since my recent surgery. The only positive experience I can remember from this period is my discovery of the Living With Cancer Cookbook by Kris Ghosh and Linda Carson, a fantastic volume of recipes specifically aimed at women going trough cancer treatment.

There’s an abundance of comfort food here and a sense that the authors truly have compassion for those of us who struggle to eat, for example breakfast recipes include cheesy ham and asparagus bake and home-style oatmeal with raisons. I also love the way this cookbook is organized to deal with the specific symptoms of cancer treatment. The four most common side effects are nausea, mouth sores, diarrhea and constipation. Eating the right foods can help alleviate these issues and make them more bearable. But as I would soon discover, I’d developed extremely serious complications with my digestive system that would require more surgical intervention. In my next post I’ll discuss my ordeal when I was hospitalized and unable to eat or drink for over a month!

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