Holidays, parties, and snowbirds — who said winter was insufferable? Unfortunately, not everyone can be so in winter’s wonders; with the cold comes a set of threats to which cancer patients are particularly sensitive. Cancer can make otherwise ordinary situations difficult, and winter is no different. Patients need to be acutely aware of winter’s inherent health risks, risks that healthier people often shrug off with little thought.
Flus & Colds
Winter is flu season, and something to take very seriously: 2019 figures are still being tallied, but since October of last year, the CDC reports 20.4 million cases of influenza, up to 256,000 flu-related hospitalizations, and 2,400 flu-related deaths in the USA. The flu is already a potent public health risk, but stakes are higher for cancer patients whose immune systems can be weakened by radiation and chemotherapy. An ordinarily three-day flu could magnify into a much more dangerous threat for cancer sufferers. The patient, family members, and primary caregivers should all get their yearly flu shot, and make a point of frequently washing their hands for 20 seconds with soap and warm water.
Technically, this condition is called “seasonal affective disorder” (SAD) and is a type of depression commonly striking in winter. Attributed to a lack of activity and reduction to sunlight, SAD can make the mental state of cancer patients, already fragile, much worse. Symptoms are numerous and intermingled: lethargy, feelings of hopelessness and worthlessness, suicidal thoughts, loss of interest in activities, social withdrawal, sleep and appetite problems, difficulty concentrating and in decision-making, decreased libido, or agitation.
Cancer patients are urged to keep active during winter, and Vitamin D supplements are recommended. However, the body makes Vitamin D naturally when exposed to the sun; in lieu of supplements, taking a 15-minute walk in sunlight, even in winter, can alleviate SAD symptoms.
Several cancer therapies interfere with how the body regulates its temperature due to dehydration. This makes cancer patients more sensitive to cold, and more susceptible to conditions such as hypothermia (where the core body temperature drops below 95 degrees) and frostbite (where the skin freezes). Both conditions, while rare, are extremely dangerous and can kill. Symptoms of hypothermia include profound shivering, slurred speech, weak pulse, shallow breathing, loss of coordination, and drowsiness; frostbite is identified by an initial whitening of the skin, particularly in the fingertips and ears, before the skin turns black due to loss of blood and cell death. In severe cases of frostbite, amputation is the only treatment. Cancer sufferers are reminded to keep warm and dress in layers during winter.
A type of eczema exacerbated by cold, winter itch is a perennial annoyance for healthy people and cancer patients alike. As the humidity drops during winter, skin can turn dry, itchy, or even cracked and rubbed raw from scratching. These symptoms can become far more pronounced for patients on chemotherapy. Staying out of cold temperatures is wise, but drinking fluids, liberal use of moisturizers, avoidance of harsh soaps and detergents, and the use of a home humidifier also are all recommended for cancer patients during winter.
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Cancer.net. (2019). Cancer and the Winter Months. Retrieved from: https://www.cancer.net/blog/podcasts/cancer-and-winter-months
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2019). 2019-2020 U.S. Flu Season: Preliminary Burden Estimates. Retrieved from: https://www.cdc.gov/flu/about/burden/preliminary-in-season-estimates.htm
Mayo Clinic. (2019). Seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Retrieved from: https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/seasonal-affective-disorder/symptoms-causes/syc-20364651
WebMD.com. (2019). Understanding Frostbite — the Basics. Retrieved from: https://www.webmd.com/first-aid/understanding-frostbite-basics
WebMD.com. (2019). Hypothermia. Retrieved from: https://www.webmd.com/a-to-z-guides/what-is-hypothermia#1
WiseGEEK. (2019). What is Winter Itch? Retrieved from: https://www.wisegeek.com/what-is-winter-itch.htm