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Blog 1.1: Cancer Treatment and the Holidays

5 tips to make the holidays a bit more palatable for children being treated for cancer

Three years ago this holiday season, our three-year-old granddaughter was in the middle of treatment for cancer.  While our family handled holiday celebrations as best we could, it was a time of increased stress.  If the challenges of treatment weren’t enough, the demands of the holiday created even more opportunities for things to fall apart.

This blog post is meant as a gesture of hope.  It is presented by a family much like your own — a family who was deeply challenged by cancer treatment and who wanted the holidays to be as normal as possible.  Two themes run through this message:  1) planning and sharing plans can be a source of stability; 2) sometimes you just need to make it through the holiday season.

Feasts are an important part of the holiday celebration.  The emphasis on food may prove to be a challenge to the family of a child undergoing cancer treatment.  Here are five ideas for making the holiday meals work during cancer treatment:

Anticipate the effects of food odors

While each child responds differently to treatment, nausea is a reality for many.  Sometimes the day in the treatment cycle can be predictive of nausea.  Unfortunately, some children cannot predict when they will be nauseated, or what may trigger the nausea.  The unique odors pleasantly associated with holiday feasts may be the trigger for nausea and vomiting.  We suggest you plan in advance for this eventuality.  For example, parents could plan an outside event while the meal is being prepared.  Better yet, troll for an invitation to someone’s home for the meal.  This will allow your own home to be an odor-free, safe zone.  Never be hesitant to exit a situation that becomes uncomfortable for your child.

Choose plastic utensils rather than metal

Once again, no two children respond exactly the same to the taste of food during treatment.  However, some children report that food tastes like metal.  If that is the case, sometimes eating with a plastic fork and spoon, rather than metal, will help with the problem

Avoid seeking just the right temptation

For all kinds of caring, loving reasons, relatives and friends may try to come up with the exact dish to entice your child to eat.  They may start by asking what (s)he would like to eat, which may even result in an answer.  However, after careful planning and preparation, when the dish is served, the desire goes south….  This is the nature of appetite during treatment.  What sounds good one minute may cause nausea the next.  While caring adults are willing to go to great lengths to stimulate appetite, especially in the thin, pale cancer patient, it may prove to be counter-productive.

We suggest that you be honest with friends and relatives who want to break through the appetite barrier with their special treat.  Sure, they can try….  However, they must promise not to be disappointed if it doesn’t work.

Have a plan in case something comes up

Whether it be the food, the excitement of the people gathered, or some totally unknown stimulus, nausea may well happen for the child in treatment.  We suggest you plan for it.  Planning in advance can help minimize drama.  By sharing the plan in a matter-of-fact, non-emotional manner, execution can be calming.  We suggest that the plan be as minimally disruptive as possible; be shared in advance with all concerned; be implemented without fanfare; and be executed quickly if the need arises.

Planning for the worst is always a prudent choice during the holidays.  Everyone wants the celebration to go without a hitch.  However, treatment introduces a huge risk for disruption.  By developing, sharing, and executing a plan in a matter-of-fact manner, everyone will be more comfortable, especially your child.

Holidays during treatment are to be endured, not remembered

The trials and challenges of treatment loom large in families trying to make holiday seasons as normal as possible.  The reality is that treatment often disrupts normalcy, especially at holiday time.  However, the disruption need not become a new normal.  Lean on the experience of those who have gone this path before you – holidays during treatment are more to be endured than remembered….

Pediatric Oncofertility Research Foundation, PORF, is committed to families of children with cancer.  Please visit porf.org for more information about our foundation and the mission we strive to realize.