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Healthy for the Holidays

by Karen Syrjala, PhD

Wellness image

Surviving the holidays with one’s waistline, bank account, and sanity intact can be challenging for everyone, but the season affords specific issues for cancer survivors who are mindful of staying healthy throughout the season and beyond. Here are some tips to help survivors have a healthier holiday season and less stressful new year.

present 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? For example, if you have to see a difficult relative, arrange to do something fun afterward. This way, you can remind yourself that in a few hours you’ll be doing something that you enjoy.

present Are there holiday traditions or events 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?

present 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.

Author of Article photo

Dr. Karen Syrjala

present 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 to time spent connecting with those we are close to; consider this important for your health during the holidays.

present Keep moving.
Physical activity can benefit your health any time of year. It is certain to make you feel good and help your body and brain 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. 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.

present 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.

present Know how alcohol affects your health.
Alcohol use has been associated with an increased risk of certain cancers. If you choose to drink, do so in moderation (one drink a day for women and two for men).

present Relax your body and mind.
When you are more relaxed you can 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.

present 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; or 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.

present Have a long-term plan for your follow-up care.
Schedule an appointment to go over your survivorship needs if you aren’t sure about your risks for long-term problems or what symptoms you should 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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Dr. Karen Syrjala is codirector of the Survivorship Program and director of Biobehavioral Sciences at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, WA.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, November/December 2012.