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December CONSULT

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Kindness, thoughtfulness can brighten cancer patients' holidays

Published on Sunday, December 1, 2019

By: Cynthia Wall

Cancer patients need support year-round, but the holidays may especially be more taxing, according to Dr. Stephanie Elkins, a hematologist with the University of Mississippi Medical Center’s Cancer Center and Research Institute.

Portrait of Dr. Stephanie Elkins

“It’s especially hard for those on active therapy who can’t do what they want at the holiday,” said Elkins, who heads the UMMC Division of Hematology and Oncology.

With the additional flurry of activities and gatherings, the holidays present obstacles for cancer patients in treatment. They may have a lower immune system and less energy and may need time to simply rest and recuperate.

Elkins said she tells patients: “Listen to your body. It will tell you when to sit. You don’t have to miss out on activities, just enjoy it at a measured pace.”

Although it may be hard, she advises patients in active treatment to “be protective of themselves.

“People are in and out and want to love on you,” she said. “Be cautious of everyone who visits. Use hand sanitizer and perhaps a mask.”

The holidays also offer an opportunity for friends and family to take “one load off somebody and anything you do can help them do better,” she said.  

While family and friends want to help, many aren’t sure how.

Elkins and others who work with CCRI patients offer tips for helping cancer patients and their caregivers. Many of their suggestions can be done at any time of the year.

Treatment can leave cancer patients with intense fatigue or suppressed immune systems, which may limit what they can do during a holiday. Ask what is most important to that specific patient and narrow his or her activities to a manageable level.

Here are some suggestions:

•  Narrow the activity list.
Discuss which activities mean the most to the patient and help him or her prioritize them. Make it clear that he or she can say ‘no’ to any activity at any time. Let the activities revolve around his or her health and stamina. If past holidays were non-stop with activities, encourage the patient to pick only one or two that mean the most.

•  Move the party.
Perhaps a nearby relative can host a gathering that usually takes place at the patient’s home.

•  Send a party package.
If the patient can’t attend family gatherings, send party favors in advance and add the patient to the get-together remotely through video chat, especially to watch children open presents. Send a plate of food and perhaps video messages from guests.

•  Send a meal.
Send a catered holiday meal to your favorite cancer patient so neither he or she nor his or her caregiver has to cook. Make sure the meal includes foods the patient can eat.

•  Decorate.
Do it inside and out; after the holiday, remove and store the decorations.

•  See the lights.
Take the patient for a leisurely drive to see the holiday lights in the neighborhood or areas decked out for the holiday.

•  Be the surrogate baker.
If a patient is famous for holiday cookies or cakes but can’t make it happen this year, help keep the baked-goods gift train going to teachers, children and grandchildren.

•  Shop.
Shopping in person can be tiresome and shopping online can be frustrating. Help with the gift list. As an added bonus, wrap the gifts for the patient.

•  Buy groceries.
Offer to do this regular task.

•  Clean.
If the patient is a close friend, show up and go to work. Make it sparkle.

•  Do yardwork.
Mow, rake, make it pretty. Plant bulbs that will brighten the patient’s day in the spring.

•  Babysit children.
If a cancer patient has children, offer to take them to area Christmas and holiday shows or activities that may be too tiring for the parent. Or offer to stay with the patient so a spouse can enjoy time with the children.

•  Remember that caregivers need help, too.
Offer a ”day-cation” for the caregiver to take care of personal needs and his or her holiday errands.

•  Revive memories.
Did you and the patient laugh until you cried at a movie? Arrange a showing of that one or a new release in the patient’s home, complete with snacks, drinks and plenty of memories.

•  Go caroling.
Take the party to the patient’s door.

•  Scrapbook.
Make and present a scrapbook of a favorite trip or family activity.

•  Just listen.
With so much activity surrounding a major holiday, some patients just need a friend to sit quietly with them and listen if they choose to talk.

The above article appears in CONSULT, UMMC’s monthly e-newsletter sharing news about cutting-edge clinical and health science education advances and innovative biomedical research at the Medical Center and giving you tips and suggestions on how you and the people you love can live a healthier life. Click here and enter your email address to receive CONSULT free of charge. You may cancel at any time.