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Winter with Cancer: 6 Steps to Help You Stay Safe

Last updated: December 27, 2021

The cold, winter months can be taxing on your emotional health. 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.

Joyce Philip, M.D., Oncology/Hematology, ThedaCare Cancer Care

For many, the winter is a time of mixed feelings. While the season brings the joy and light of the holidays, it also delivers 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 estimated 1.9 million Americans diagnosed with cancer each year, winter brings many other challenges as well. 

“Cancer treatments can weaken one’s immune system, making cancer patients more susceptible to colds and infections,” says Joyce Philip, M.D., Oncology/Hematology at ThedaCare Cancer Care. “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 other conditions, including: 

  • Hypothermia 
  • Frostbite 
  • Dry skin 
  • Increased or decreased cold sensitivity 
  • Peripheral neuropathy 

Fortunately, cancer patients can take some simple steps to prevent these conditions. 

1. Protect Immunity

It might sound obvious, but for cancer patients, averting serious health complications means avoiding minor illnesses as much as possible. Patients with cancer have a weakened immune system due to many of the treatments they receive, such as chemotherapy, Dr. Philip says. For this reason, those with cancer should pay special attention 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,” Dr. Philip says. “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 prove dangerous for those with weakened immune systems. 

2. Take Fevers Seriously 

Individuals undergoing cancer treatments suffer from neutropenia, a condition where a person has fewer white blood cells than normal to help fight off infections. In this state, a fever is oftentimes the only sign that the person is suffering from an infection. 

“Fever in a cancer patient can be dangerous,” Dr. Philip says. “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 with cancer, 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. This can increase fall risks. 

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,” Dr. Philip says. “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. However, for cancer patients whose treatments already expose them to itchy, cracked skin, cold weather can make dryness extra challenging.  

To keep skin hydrated, use gentle soaps and detergents, moisturize with creams or ointments, and drink plenty of fluids. Also consider adjusting shower habits.  

“Avoid long, hot showers and moisturize often, especially after taking a shower,” Dr. Philip says. “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. Having to follow additional precautions to stay safe during the winter can feel overwhelming. It’s normal to feel frustrated or even to shy away from other people. But cancer patients don’t have to face this alone.  

Don’t be afraid to ask friends, loved ones, and neighbors for help. Those who care are more than happy to step in and assist with tasks like shoveling snow and running errands.

“Your physical health is undoubtedly a priority while battling cancer,” Dr. Philip says. “That said, the cold, winter months can be particularly 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 services ThedaCare offers to support the health and well-being of our cancer patients.  

Tags: cancer care winter winter with cancer

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