As we gear up for the holiday season, what images come to mind? For many of us, we connect the merriment of the holidays with family, friends and food, glorious food.
But this time of year can be incredibly stressful for people who are not feeling well due to cancer or its treatment. Many of my patients tell me they would like to spend time with their families and friends, but may be too tired or weak. They may feel pressured to continue festive traditions despite having low energy levels, especially if they have finished treatment. Sometimes they're expected to "bounce back" when treatment is over, but fatigue and other side effects can linger. Cancer survivors also worry that their lack of appetite, taste changes or nausea will make holiday gatherings a negative experience.
Much of the counselling I provide to cancer patients is around this very issue: staying well-nourished while enjoying the social aspect of eating. Food is an important part of how we celebrate and connect with others, especially during the holidays.
Here are tips some of my patients have used to help them enjoy holiday parties, while also taking good care of themselves.
BEFORE THE PARTY
The holidays are a time for celebrating with family and friends, but don't feel pressured to accept every invitation. Choose to attend the events that are most important to you. This will help you preserve your energy by balancing social gatherings with time alone to recharge.
Share the workload
If you're usually the host of a holiday meal but are feeling tired or otherwise not up to it, think of ways that other family members or friends can share the workload. Suggest a potluck where everyone brings a dish, or ask if someone else can host this year. Your cancer journey can cause a great deal of financial stress, so having others contribute by bringing food can help. You can also start a new tradition and order food or go out to eat together.
Talk to the host
If you're invited to a holiday gathering and are worried about feeling nauseous at dinner, talk to the host about it. Maybe you can join for dessert to avoid some of the cooking smells. The host may ask you what types of foods you would be comfortable eating. Don't be afraid to let him or her know.
BYO (bring your own)
Bring some of the foods you are comfortable eating based on any side effects you are dealing with. If you aren't comfortable asking your host what he or she will serve, this is a great way to make sure there will be something you can eat at the party.
Eat well before the party
Sometimes my patients will avoid eating before a holiday meal, thinking this will improve their appetite. This tends to backfire because having an empty stomach makes nausea worse. Nibble on plain foods such as toast or crackers throughout the day. If you can, try to eat smaller meals every two hours to help keep nausea at bay.
AT THE PARTY
By serving yourself, you can choose the foods that will help you manage your side effects. You can also choose smaller portions that you feel comfortable with.
If you have a sensitive stomach, rich foods can make things worse. Choose plain foods that are baked or steamed with little added fat. Try some turkey with cranberry sauce instead of gravy, rice, baked potatoes or a dinner roll, and some plain vegetables. Again, talking to the host in advance to see what will be available and bringing your own side dishes will really help.
Cancer treatments such as chemotherapy and bone-marrow transplants weaken the immune system. If you're immune-compromised, be careful about food safety, especially if the food is served buffet-style. Try to choose foods from the middle of the buffet or make your plate early to avoid germs.
Make sure hot foods are steaming hot and cold foods are on ice. It's also a good idea to avoid high-risk foods like sushi, devilled eggs and homemade eggnog. If you aren't sure how long foods have been sitting out, ask the chef or host. Or try foods like crackers, chips and salsa, nuts and cookies – these are safer bets because they can sit out longer.
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Christy Brissette is a registered dietitian and national spokesperson for Dietitians of Canada. She is passionate about food and providing clients with the knowledge and skills they need to make healthier meals at home. Brissette co-hosts The ELLICSR Kitchen, an interactive cooking and nutrition show for cancer survivors at Toronto's Princess Margaret Hospital. You can follow her on Twitter @80twentyrule. Her website is ChristyBrissette.com.