Monday 30 November, 2020

Isolation and Cancer – Tips for Christmas

Christmas is just around the corner and it will look drastically different for millions across the globe this year, due to many countries undergoing a critical second wave of the Coronavirus pandemic affecting the lives of countless around the world.

For people experiencing cancer during the holiday season, feeling isolated or alone is nothing new. You know the challenge it can be to plaster on a smile and put on a cheery disposition while dealing with a cancer diagnosis, whether that be your own or that of a loved one. 

It’s important for our own health and wellbeing that we learn how to process these emotions, and instead of faking our way through the season, we find sustainable ways to bring us joy amidst the difficulty.

For those of you out there whose first year it is isolating during the holidays, here are some tips on how to cope with loneliness and sadness, whether that be because of cancer or corona. There is hope and that’s what this season is all about – here’s what we can do to feel that hope, and come together and celebrate, however different that might look from what we’re used to.

What we’ll cover in this blog: 

Coping with loneliness and isolation during the holiday season 

Concrete tips on how to counteract loneliness during the holiday season

Cancer and loneliness during Christmas

It’s normal that cancer can make us feel low or not ourselves, which makes the hype of the holiday season one we sometimes want to steer away from. Many people also struggle with feelings of loneliness and isolation during this season, even if they’re not physically alone. These feelings are more likely to strike those going through cancer – let’s just say, we aren’t always in the hopeful, “my life is brilliant” (James Blunt fans, sing that line aloud in your head) mindset.

This is because many who deal with a cancer diagnosis experience stress, worry, and low energy, caused by the effect of cancer on relationships, work, the exhaustion of treatment, or uncertainty of the future. Research from the British Medical Journal shows that 1 in 5 cancer patients suffer from depression, compared to 1 in 20 in the general population, and several studies also shows that forced cheeriness is bad for our mental wellbeing.

On top of that, things that bring us joy during the holiday season such as seeing loved ones or eating your favorite food, can also be pleasures that can be stripped from us. How’s that? We may feel alone during cancer, friends may ghost us because they don’t know how to deal with a cancer diagnosis, and for many, the uncertainty of disease puts a general damper on the holiday mood.

And so, we turn to food (which also happens to be a huge focus of the holiday season). However, in about 50% of people, cancer can cause food to taste different, and that’s usually not great – it can taste bland or metallic or simply completely different than it used to. 

It’s in these spaces – when you feel low about the state of where you’re at with cancer, your self-confidence, or anxious – that we need to summon the motivation to create space for that feeling before moving forward. 

Dag Härdfeldt has a good tip about coping with worry and stress: Set aside time every day to allow yourself to worry, and then don’t let yourself worry about it anymore. The brain doesn’t respond well when told it cannot do something, like for example: “don’t worry.” However, it responds better to “you can worry at this time.” So, let yourself worry, and then don’t dwell on it after the allotted time (let’s say 10 minutes). Afterwards, make yourself a hot chocolate with extra cocoa and spices (if you’ve lost your taste because of treatment) and take a walk. It’s important to let yourself feel what you feel in measure, and then take active steps to boost your happiness through tangible ways such as physical activity or calling a friend who makes you feel heard and understood. 

Concrete tips to combat loneliness during the holiday season

Besides giving yourself space to worry and then stepping away from the urge to worry all the time, try to remind yourself to take part or think about the following things to fight the fog and feel warmer inside during this holiday season. 

Remember what it is that guides you forward

What is your North Star? Remembering what values you hold can help in giving you a sense of hope, purpose, and direction. You can be creative in how you think about this here. Do you value empathy or kindness or humor? Maybe you think about it in more concrete terms, such as your child, or nature, or your favorite hobby. 

Whatever it is that gives you that tiny (or big) push forwards is worth you focusing your attention on. It will help lift your eyes above the mess and put the anxiety or gloominess you’re feeling on the back burner. Practicing this can also create a sense of gratitude for the things in life you appreciate is an effective way to battle depression because it shifts our thinking from negative thoughts to positive ones, which causes a surge in feel-good hormones such as oxytocin, serotonin, and dopamine. Try and find things in your life that are unbroken, intact, or that make you feel whole. It can be as simple as a child’s smile, a puppy’s sweet disposition or the tree outside your room. 

So, do things that make you feel grateful or are in line with the North Star of your life, and if you can’t do them, practice gratitude for them.

It’s about physical isolation this year, not social

One of the few upsides of Covid-19 for people experiencing cancer is that, this year, the general population may have a better understanding of the loneliness you can feel when going through cancer. People are living through the psychological, emotional, and physical stress that illness causes, and now, your family and friends may understand the loneliness or low-mood you experience because of cancer.

However, because of Covid-19, many more people have become accustomed to using and socializing through technology. Use this common strength to stay social – many will be up for gathering online. Join War On Cancer’s Holiday Meet-Up (more coming soon!), have a group call to check in with your family, schedule a virtual drink with your friend, or play an online game A fun game that virtually everyone can play, young or old, is called, which is like Pictionary but online. 

Remember, it’s about physical distance, not emotional distance. Reach out to people you can trust and feel comfortable with. Don’t know who that is? Download the War On Cancer app to get into touch with people who know what you’re going through because they’ve lived it themselves. Ask questions to the community if you’re feeling unsure of how to handle your cancer diagnosis this Christmas or 

Managing food changes because of cancer during the Christmas season

Oftentimes when we feel sad or alone, we tend to lean on comforting activities to self-soothe. Some examples include eating more, sleeping more, or drinking more. 

The holiday season is quite the time for eating treats and drinking, enjoy the things that make you feel good! However, try not to consume quantities of them that will make you feel worse about yourself or your cancer diagnosis. Alcohol can often exaggerate what we’re really feeling…including depressed. If it brings you joy to eat a lush Christmas fruit cake and have a glass of wine (and those things are considered okay for you from your doctor), then go for it! A tip to keep drinking and food in balance is to share it with others. Avoid drinking alone and make it special by meeting up with someone and sharing a drink together. Have a virtual glass of wine with a friend or a Christmas coffee and cake online with a loved one. 

However, trying to enjoy food around this time of year but not being able to because of the effect that your cancer treatment may have on your tastebuds, is a real bummer. Oftentimes, the holiday season brings up strong connections to our childhood and that’s the same with food. We especially have a strong connection to foods that we enjoyed as children that are linked to positive memories. So, when we can’t taste those in the same way, it can be hard to enjoy the holiday season in the same way. Here are two ideas to still enjoy food during the season: 

Add spice to make your holiday food more enjoyable 

If you’re experiencing a taste in food that is simply bland or doesn’t taste like anything, try to add stronger flavors to feel it. If you want hot chocolate, add extra cocoa, add some chili pepper to it, and salt (this strengthens the flavor of the cocoa). Try and add stronger flavors to your favorite Christmas recipes to see if that helps. 

Try new foods and ones you know you didn’t like pre-treatment 

Or, use this holiday season to experiment which tastes you do enjoy during your cancer treatment. They may be foods that you didn’t like beforehand! Take some time to experiment, bake something new, or try what used to be your least favorite holiday food and see what it tastes like now. Worst thing that can happen is you still think it’s gross, and it’s nice to know that some things don’t change because of cancer 🙂 

Here’s a free recipe book specifically catered to taste buds changing because of cancer treatment.  

Stay active, even if space is limited

Getting physical exercise is super important to your overall well being, whether that be taking the dogs for a walk or dancing to your favorite Christmas tune. A common misconception is that physical exercise only counts if it’s done at the gym and at excruciatingly difficult levels. False. 

Any kind of movement increases the levels of serotonin in your brain, which is your happy hormone, and can help combat feeling lonely in exaggeration. Another idea is to walk with a friend (in a Corona-friendly way) or do an online class with a family member. Participate in War On Cancer’s Live Event about exercise and cancer on December 10th or check out Yoga with Adriene for some high-quality, wholesome at-home yoga videos or ask a loved one to join you on a challenge during the holiday season, such as going outside and being active (walking, skiing, biking, etc. for 30 minutes every day, no matter the weather or how you’re feeling. 

Don’t be afraid to ask people if they want to join you in staying physical. For the first time in a very long time, people are more isolated than ever and many people will be going through similar feelings of lowness or loneliness, whether or not they have cancer. We’re in it together, and can make it through by encouraging each other when motivation is low. 

Combat cancer isolation by helping others – possible in the War On Cancer app

Helping others is proven to help improve our mental wellbeing. It gives us a sense of purpose and puts someone else’s needs above our own, which helps us get out of our heads. Latest research shows that helping others regulate emotions can help regulate our emotions. Helping someone else doesn’t have to be in-person or over the top.

You can respond to someone who’s struggling with something that you’ve struggled with going through cancer in the War On Cancer app by simply commenting on their post or reaching out through a direct message. Or, help others who will be diagnosed with cancer in the future by contributing to research under Health Studies in the War On Cancer app. Take part in the study “Living with Cancer during the Corona Pandemic” or “Fostering Emotional Resilience after Breast Cancer.” Both surveys require about 3 minutes of your time, and you will have helped researchers better understand the cancer experience. 

Within your local community, help others online by asking a friend you know who is going through a tough time how you can help them. Or, suggest something to them that you know you can do, helps them, and brings you both joy or relief. During the season of giving, you can also consider helping a non-profit you’re passionate about – whether that be through an act of service or financial donation.

Love is an act and actively loving others is a way to love yourself too. We are social beings meant for community and connection. Your effort will make someone’s day. 

Do you have any ideas on how to better cope with cancer during the holiday season? Reach out to us via the War On Cancer app and share with us and the community! 

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