Cancer survivors have more than icy roads to worry about, from snow shoveling to that vacation in the Tropics. Here are 10 things cancer survivors should watch out for during colder weather — and ways to cope.
1. Be good to your eyes
Some types of chemotherapy can make your eyes uncomfortably dry; dry winter weather can do the same thing. Ask your oncologist about lubricating eye drops, and give your eyes extra protection when you’re outside in a cold wind, wrapping that warm scarf around your face, or even wearing eye protection.
Lymphedema is a potentially dangerous swelling of the arms and trunk due to disruption of the lymph node system after a mastectomy or the removal of underarm lymph nodes. It’s often brought on by repetitive weight-bearing motions: e.g., shoveling snow. Avoid shoveling if you possibly can; if you can’t, do it in short bursts, never long enough for your arm/shoulder to feel fatigued.
3. Protection during fender-benders
Women healing from a mastectomy are extra-vulnerable to injuries while driving. Even the slightest fender-bender on an ice-slicked road can drive an over-the-shoulder seatbelt right across that tender wound. Until you’re fully healed, place a pillow between you and your seatbelt for extra protection.
4. Seek the sun, avoid the burn
Celebrating the end of chemo with a tropical vacation? Enjoy the sun, but take plenty of sunscreen and protective clothing. Many chemo drugs result in super-sensitivity to sunlight; you can burn more easily than usual. And remember, this sensitivity can remain for several months after you’re had your last infusion.
5. Protect your head and shoulders
If you’ve lost your hair due to treatment, don’t venture outside for even the shortest trip without a scarf and warm hat. Much of your body heat is lost through the head and shoulders. Because you have absolutely no “insulation” on your head right now — cover up.
6. Keep your hands and feet warm
Some women find themselves developing neuropathy — numbness of the hands and feet — as a result of chemotherapy. Cold temperatures can exacerbate this numbness, and encourage stumbles and falls. Forget the fashion statement. Wear warm gloves and boots.
7. Get a grip — don’t slip
Icy conditions can easily produce falls. And survivors taking aromatase inhibitors often exhibit bone loss, which increases the risk of fracture. Understand your risk, and take that risk into account when deciding whether to shuffle across that ice patch in the driveway, or take the long way around.
8. Winter means flu season
If you’re undergoing chemotherapy, your immune system is seriously compromised; even the smallest cold — let alone the flu — can quickly become dangerous. Do all you can to avoid germs. Be super-vigilant about avoiding crowds and washing your hands after being out in public.
9. Avoid fatigue
Radiation, chemo, surgery — all can produce physical fatigue. Ditto shoveling the driveway, loading the woodstove, wading through deep snow… or even just walking with the extra encumbrance of a heavy coat and big boots. Fatigue can lower your body’s resistance to illness; consider limiting outdoor physical activities while you’re undergoing active treatment.
10. Stoking your inner fire
Your body needs extra fuel during colder weather. But some types of cancer treatment make just the thought of food distasteful — literally! If you have trouble eating, ask your oncologist to hook you up with a nutritionist. S/he can help you put together a temporary diet of foods you still find palatable, in quantities large enough to keep you going through winter’s cold days.
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PJ Hamel is senior digital content editor and food writer at King Arthur Flour, and a James Beard award-winning author. A 16-year breast cancer survivor, her passion is helping women through this devastating disease. She manages a large and active online survivor support network based at her local hospital and shares her wisdom and experience with the greater community via HealthCentral.com.