When you are first diagnosed with cancer everyone rushes around trying to do their best, say the right thing, visit, call, email. You get gifts, flowers, fruit and other edible treats (some that frustratingly can’t be used or consumed). In fact so much attention is suddenly thrusted upon you that it can feel overwhelming, exhausting, and not always what you really want.
Living with cancer is hard, it is relentless, exhausting and emotional. However when you are unwell during the Christmas festivities these feelings can be amplified. Everyone appears to have so much going on, busy out and having fun, that you can end up feeling even more isolated. Your weekly visit or call from a friend or loved one may start to dwindle as Christmas fever grabs hold.
Being unwell can often feel harder during the winter months - the days shorter and the nights longer, colder and darker. Suddenly everyone has less free time. Support networks, forums and helplines may even close down as volunteers and carers spend time with their own families. This can be particular hard for those who rely on the emotional support these groups provide. According to Macmillan Cancer Support, 22% of cancer patients experience loneliness following diagnosis due to lack of practical support or emotional issues such as anxiety or depression. What happens if support is not available at one of the most vulnerable times of the year?
There is also that unspeakable question, could this be my last Christmas? A sentiment shared by many. It is, after all the time of year almost everyone looks forward to; it’s the milestone they want to get to.
It can be even more depressing and isolating if you have to spend Christmas in hospital. From a young age we are flooded with images and expectations that Christmas is about family time, with presents, decorations, family meals and lots of laughter. Anything that doesn’t match this image is hard for people to deal with. In recent years social media has only served to fuel this expectation. Nobody sees the hard times on social media, or how many photos were taken in order to achieve that perfect selfie or lifestyle photo.
This is something Anikka, founder of Not Another Bunch Of Flowers can easily relate to having undergone treatment during the Christmas period. “When you’re first diagnosed, everyone jumps to send cards and presents, but treatment carries on for a year and the side effects last much longer. At Christmas everything feels exaggerated. All your friends are out shopping or at Christmas events having fun whilst you are in and out of hospital and generally feeling rubbish. It can feel lonely, isolating and depressing”.
So if you do have a friend or relative that is poorly this Christmas, try to think of ways to be there for them and help.
Firstly, if you are buying a present, keep in mind that there are certain things that might not be allowed in the hospital, especially if they are in any type of isolation. It’s always a good idea to call the hospital where your friend or relative is and ask if your gift is allowed.
Comfy pyjamas for hospital or for recovering at home are a really useful and thoughtful gift. If there is surgery involved try to look for front fastening ones.
Keepsakes work well. Flowers wilt and die but something to keep and treasure is perfect gift to show you are thinking of them.
It might not be the first thing that springs to mind but specially chosen herbal teas are great. It shows that you really have been thinking about them and what they may need. Ginger and liquorice are known for their anti-sickness properties.
TLC or pamper products are great too – especially ones that have natural ingredients that are safe for all skin types (some illnesses and treatments make your skin more sensitive than usual). Products like nail varnish, manicure accessories, bath oils, handcream… gifts that encourage “me-time” and relaxation. She may not being going to the Christmas party this year but that doesn’t mean she can’t be pampered, made to feel special. Look out for the ingredients to ensure they don’t contain any hidden nasties.
There will undoubtedly be some duvet days and time to kill in hospital waiting rooms or whilst having treatment… books, puzzles, magazines, doodle pads are all thoughtful, useable gifts. For books, keep it light and easy-to-read, nothing dark or depressing or complex. Many people experience problems with concentration and recall during and after treatment. Anything too complex is likely to be really frustrating.
Finally, it may be cheesy but the best gift, which costs nothing is to simply be there. At the busiest time of year it is easy to forget about what other people are going through. So lend an ear, listen and allow your friend or loved one to use the time you have together to be about what he or she wants it to be. After all it is Christmas.