How to Enjoy the Holidays When You Have Cancer

Dec 18, 2019 | Megan Roessler M. Ed. | @meganroessler


Article contributed by Jackie See, Registered Dietitian

The holidays are upon us and food and drink seem to be the focus of every event.  This is the time of year when many people struggle to eat well.  The holidays bring celebrations and special foods you would not ordinarily eat.  They can also create other challenges, if you are not feeling up to it.  Whether you are experiencing side effects of treatment, struggling with fatigue or just trying to eat healthy, here are some strategies to help you enjoy the holidays.

According to the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR), approximately 1/3 of all cancers can be prevented by maintaining a healthy weight, being physically active and consuming a healthy diet.  The same guidelines may apply to cancer survivors.  The good news is you can still enjoy some of your favorite dishes.  It's just a matter of moderation.   Having a few unhealthy meals now and then is unlikely to ruin an otherwise healthy lifestyle.

An abundance of cancer fighting foods

On a positive note, many of the holiday foods are quite healthy and ones we should be eating more often.

Holiday food                       Why you should eat it

Sweet potato/yam            beta carotene (an antioxidant), vitamin-C (antioxidant), potassium, fiber

White potatoes                 potassium, fiber, vitamin-C

Winter squash                   beta carotene, vitamin-C, potassium, fiber

Pumpkin                             beta carotene, vitamin-C, potassium, fiber

Rutabaga                            sulphoraphane (phytochemical), vitamin C, fiber

Walnuts                              omega 3 fatty acids, vitamin E, unsaturated fats, protein

Brazil nuts                          selenium (antioxidant), unsaturated fats, protein

Other nuts                          unsaturated fats, vitamin E,  protein

Cranberries                        anthocyanins (phytochemicals), vitamin C, fiber

Clementines                      vitamin-C, fiber

Cocoa                                  flavanols (phytochemicals)

Oysters                               iron, protein

Shrimp                                omega 3 fatty acids, protein

Eggnog                                protein, calcium

Turkey                                low-fat protein

Even red meat can be part of a healthy diet.  Although ham is a processed meat, which is potentially carcinogenic, according to AICR it can be eaten on special occasions.  It may also taste better to you  than other meats  if you’ve experienced taste changes from your chemo.   Lean red meat, such as beef, can also be eaten in moderation, about 18 ounces per week.

Sometimes it is the way foods are prepared or the quantity we eat that can counteract the health benefits.  If you are the chef, you have more control over how the food is prepared.   You may be able to substitute healthier ingredients, such as applesauce for oil in baked goods or evaporated skim milk in recipes that call for cream.  But, some recipes just can’t be tampered with and, in this case, limit the quantity you eat.

Try roasted potatoes instead of potato dishes with butter and cream. Toss cut up white or sweet potatoes with olive oil and roast in a 375 degree oven.  If you like to bake, just bake small batches of your family’s top 3 holiday favorites or give some of it away.

Pace yourself

Although this time of year brings cheer and joy, it may also be filled with lengthy to do lists. For people who may be experiencing fatigue or other symptoms from their treatment, the tasks can be even more challenging.  If your energy level is low or you tire easily, choose activities that don’t require as much exertion, for example, writing Christmas cards. Do your Black Friday shopping online this year, sit and frost the cookies that someone else has baked, sit while you wrap gifts.  Accept friends’ offers to give you a hand this year or delegate some of your responsibilities.  Take more breaks.  Pace yourself to avoid excessive fatigue.

If you do not feel up to it, don’t feel obligated to say yes to every invitation or request.  Do the activities you enjoy,  that put a smile on your face and that are meaningful to you.

Schedule some “me time” or down time every day - a nap,  a hot bath or cuddling with your pet.

Do good to feel good

Doing a good deed for someone can make you feel better.  If you look around, you can almost always find someone less fortunate than yourself.

Protect yourself

On a final note, stay healthy if your immune system is compromised due to cancer treatment.  Prevent infections by taking these precautions:

  • Wash your hands often
  • Steer clear of buffets
  • Avoid unnecessary crowds or wear a mask
  • Avoid people who are sick
  • Get adequate rest

Interested in more newsfeed posts like this? Go to the Cancer Education blog.

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