Living with cancer at Christmas: how to get the most from the festive period

For the 210,000+Londoners living with cancer, Christmas can be a particularly exhausting time. Becky Johl, lead nurse in oncology and chemotherapy at Charing Cross Hospital, tells us about her experiences of working on the wards at Christmas, and shares Macmillan Cancer Support’s top tips for how to make the festive period more manageable.  

Christmas is just a normal day for us as cancer nurses; we have up to 13 patients on the ward at any one time and a provide round- the-clock care to our patients in case there is an emergency.  We try to make sure we do something special on the day as patients travel from all over the country to have their treatment with us. This year one of our patients has generously donated gift bags of toiletries to everyone on the ward – it’s the little touches that make the most difference. 

If you are living with cancer, there are many factors people wouldn’t necessarily think about that make Christmas a particularly difficult time of year. For example, cancer treatment can affect your sense of taste so eating a Christmas dinner can be tricky and sometimes patients feel under pressure to make a huge effort when they’re exhausted.

If you or a loved one has cancer, here is some great advice from Macmillan Cancer Support to help you prepare for this busy period: 

1. Talk it over

When making plans for Christmas, talk to your loved one about what kind of day they want to have. They may not want to join in with everything, or they may want to do more than you think. Either way is fine. Macmillan’s information on talking about cancer provides further advice.

2. Give practical help

Cancer and its treatment can cause fatigue, so you can make a big difference to your loved one at Christmas by helping with some of the practical tasks. You could help with cleaning and decorating their home, buying presents or prepping the Christmas dinner.

If they are going to be in hospital, familiarise yourself with the visiting hours over the Christmas period as they may differ from the usual times. Also, consider offering lifts to those relying on public transport, which may be operating a reduced service.

3. Consider a thoughtful gift

A thoughtful gift can help to make your loved one with cancer feel more at ease over Christmas and give them something to look forward to.  Some simple gift ideas include a v-shaped pillow which provides comfort while sitting and sleeping, meals for the freezer, a relaxing weekend away, audiobooks or some warm clothing

4. Be flexible about food

Many people with cancer find that their tastes change, or they can no longer enjoy certain types of food, so it’s best to be flexible with the Christmas dinner so there’s no pressure on them. Have a few options available and let them choose their own portion sizes. 

5. After Christmas keep in touch

Going back to the reality of a daily routine in January can make most of us feel blue, but for people living with cancer it can be even harder, so continue to check in with your loved one and make some plans with them for the year ahead.

If you have cancer this Christmas...

6. Plan

If you’re spending Christmas at home, then familiarise yourself with the opening times of your local amenities – especially your pharmacy and GP surgery. Getting to the pharmacy in time means you can stock up on medication and get through the holiday period safe in the knowledge that you won’t suddenly run out when everything is closed. Keep in mind that calling the NHS’ 111 phone number connects you to non-emergency medical support outside of Christmas opening hours.

7. Communicate

Christmas brings people together and this might be the first time that you’ve seen certain people since your diagnosis. Try and keep in mind that despite their best intentions, they might not know what to say or how to act, so accept help from others and be specific about the kinds of things people can do to assist. Macmillan’s Online Community is a place where you can talk to others who understand what you are going through too.

8. Listen to your body

If something doesn’t feel right, then tell someone straight away. Be honest with yourself about what you can or can’t do and enjoy Christmas in a way that works for you.

9. Take breathing space

Don’t feel like you have to join in with everything and tell others if you are finding it difficult to cope. It’s ok to make an early exit if you find a family gathering or party overwhelming. This time of year, often makes us reflect on what’s important, so allow yourself some time out to think and rest if needed.

10. Treat yourself

Christmas is a time to treat yourself so, if you can, make sure you indulge in some of your favourite foods – even if it’s just a spoonful of Christmas pudding! Macmillan has a large collection of sweet and savoury recipes tailored specifically towards those who have problems with food.

For more help and advice, go to or call the Macmillan Information and Support Line on 080 8808 0000.