Christmas with blood cancer: coping with infection and side effects
Christmas is a time to eat, drink and be merry – but if blood cancer is putting you at risk of infection or you’re having a tough time with side effects, how can you make the most of the festive season? People who’ve been there share their experiences and advice.
How to reduce the risk of infection
If you’ve been diagnosed with a blood cancer, you may be at greater risk infection if your immune system is not working as well. This could be because of the cancer itself, or because of the treatment. At Christmas, you’re more likely to be surrounded by two major sources of germs – other people, and food – so it’s important to try to minimise your risk.
The second Christmas after her diagnosis, Emma was back home but still having treatment for acute lymphoblastic leukaemia. Her advice on avoiding infection is: “Wash, wash, wash your hands! I know this is a given all of the time but it’s so important when it’s cold and flu season and you’re interacting with more people.” Joanna was understandably wary of people’s coughs and sniffles after her stem cell transplant: “I popped in to a little Christmas gathering in someone’s home, where various neighbours were telling tales of the lurgies that were going around. I remember feeling very vulnerable, making my excuses and beating a hasty retreat!” She also suggests, “Make it clear to family and friends that even mild illnesses can be serious for people with weakened immune systems.”
Jane, who’s in remission from acute myeloid leukaemia, agrees: “Think intimate, with a few close and understanding friends. Big parties or open house events were no-go zones for me.” She also warns, “Don’t eat buffet food!” This is because you’re more likely to pick up germs from food that’s not been freshly prepared or has been left out on display.
It’s wise to be careful about food hygiene in general. For instance, if you want to use up Christmas left-overs, don’t reheat them more than once. If you fancy eating out, that’s fine, but think about checking the hygiene ratings of the restaurant before you book.
How to cope with side effects
Two of the more common side effects of blood cancer treatment are feeling sick and mucositis – an inflammation of your digestive system that can give you a sore mouth or bowel problems. Not exactly what you want for Christmas!
Thinking back to her chemotherapy treatment for Hodgkin lymphoma, Louise says “I had a lot of ginger tea, stem ginger or crystallised ginger when I felt nauseous. And I found pineapple kept my mouth tasting fresh. I think when you have chemo you have the best excuse for eating whatever takes your fancy.” Emily also found ginger helpful when chemo for Hodgkin lymphoma made her feel sick and affected her sense of taste: “Gingerbread men were the best things ever. Luckily it was Christmas so there were loads around.”
For Jane, spending one Christmas with mucositis and sepsis (a serious condition that can happen when an infection takes hold) was particularly tough: “I don’t really remember eating anything that year, but I would advise drinking as much as you can to keep your fluids up and eat little bits of high energy food when you can. That means chocolate, mince pies. Whatever you can manage. Nothing is off limits. The more calories, the better!”
If you do feel unwell over the Christmas season, remember you can ask your healthcare team for advice. Make sure you know who you can contact.
Our fact sheet Understanding infection has information on the symptoms and treatment of infection, and tips on how to avoid it. Our fact sheets Managing sickness and vomiting and Mucositis will give you more information on coping with these common side effects.
Eating well with neutropenia has general advice on food hygiene as well as dietary recommendations for people with neutropenia – a low number of white blood cells called neutrophils which puts you at greater risk of food poisoning.
Please note that this blog contains the personal opinions of the people who have contributed to it. It is not a substitute for medical advice.
The Bloodwise Support Line 0808 2080 888 is open Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday 10am to 4pm and Wednesday 10am to 1pm over the festive period (except bank holidays). The Samaritans are open throughout the Christmas period. You can call them on 116 123.
If you’ve been affected by blood cancer, you can also join our Community Forum to connect with other people who have had similar experiences.