For many, the winter is a time of mixed feelings. With the joy of the holidays come cold temperatures and hazardous weather that pose additional challenges to our already hectic schedules. Shoveling and blowing snow, scraping windshields, navigating slippery sidewalks, and warding off frostbite are just a few of the setbacks that come with Wisconsin winters.
But for the 1.9 million estimated Americans diagnosed with cancer in 2021 alone, the winter brings many other challenges as well.
“Cancer treatments can weaken one’s immune system, making cancer patients more susceptible to colds and infections,” explained Joyce Philip, M.D., Oncology/Hematology at ThedaCare. “With a weakened immune system, it can be harder for patients to fight off the infection and can lead to more serious complications.”
Aside from contributing to a weakened immune system, many cancer treatments may put you at risk for the following:
- Dry skin
- Increased or decreased cold sensitivity
- Peripheral neuropathy
Fortunately, there are some simple things cancer patients can do to prevent these potentially serious conditions.
1. Stay Healthy
It might sound obvious, but for cancer patients, avoiding serious health complications means avoiding minor illnesses as much as possible. As Dr. Philip mentioned earlier, patients with cancer have a weakened immune system due to many of the treatments they receive, such as chemotherapy. For this reason, special attention should be given to general hygiene and cleanliness when out in public.
“It is important to wash your hands often, such as after using the restroom, after doctor appointments or touching other people around you,” said Dr. Philip. “Try to avoid touching your eyes and nose. Stay away from others who may be sick and wear your mask while in public.”
Equally important, be sure to get your flu shot. Influenza and other contagious diseases can yield particularly harmful results for those with weakened immune systems.
2. Take Fevers Seriously
Patients undergoing cancer treatments suffer from neutropenia, a condition where there are fewer white blood cells than normal to help fight off infections. In this state, a fever is oftentimes the only sign that the patient is suffering from an infection.
For most, a fever may mean its time to stay home and rest. But if you’re battling cancer, you should take things one step further.
“Fever in a cancer patient can be dangerous,” said Dr. Philip. “You should treat it as a warning sign and contact your doctor and care team as soon as possible to determine the appropriate next steps.”
3. Watch Your Step
For some cancer patients, treatments may result in peripheral neuropathy — a set of symptoms such as numbness or weakness caused by nerve damage outside the central nervous system. Because this condition can affect the feet, hands and limbs, it may lead to limited movement and decreased coordination, putting the individual at heightened risk of falling.
To avoid a fall, and the pain or injury that could result, eliminate as many potential hazards as possible. Specifically, be sure to keep walkways and driveways clear of snow, wear boots with good tread, and hold on to railings while going down stairs.
4. Stay Warm
It’s always wise to bundle up in the winter, but even more so if you’re suffering from decreased cold sensitivity – another potential side effect of cancer treatment. If you’re not careful, you could end up with frostbite or hypothermia.
“Dress in layers and protect your skin with cold-weather gear,” advised Dr. Philip. “In addition to wearing a jacket that is wind and water resistant, choose practical and warm footwear, and take a few extra moments to put on a hat, scarf and gloves.”
5. Hydrate Your Skin
Dry skin plagues many of us during the winter months, but for cancer patients whose treatments already expose them to itchy, cracked skin, cold weather can make it especially challenging to maintain that healthy glow.
To keep your skin hydrated, use gentle soaps and detergents, moisturize with creams or ointments, and drink plenty of fluids. You may also want to adjust your shower habits.
“Avoid long, hot showers and moisturize often, especially after taking a shower,” said Dr. Philip. “Lukewarm baths and showers are best, ideally for no longer than 10 minutes, and washcloths are less abrasive than the traditional loofah or sponge.”
6. Ask for Help
Coping with a cancer diagnosis is difficult enough, not to mention implementing additional precautions to stay safe during the winter. It is normal to feel frustrated and overwhelmed, or even to shy away from other people. But you don’t have to face this alone.
Don’t be afraid to ask friends, loved ones and neighbors for help. Those who care about you are more than happy to step in and assist with things like shoveling snow, running errands and keeping you company, so you can avoid winter hazards and germs as much as possible.
“Your physical health is undoubtedly a priority while battling cancer,” said Dr. Philip. “That said, the cold, winter months can be particularly emotionally taxing on your emotional health, too. Lean on your loved ones and consider seeking help from a behavioral health specialist. You should never feel like you have to navigate this journey alone.”
Learn about the various services ThedaCare offers to support the health and well-being of our cancer patients.