After head and neck cancer, training for Thanksgiving

Nov. 10, 2017

Mother and daughter in the kitchenWhen you’re learning to swallow again after treatment for head and neck cancer, preparing for Thanksgiving can be like training for a marathon. It can be physical, mental and intense, but absolutely worth the effort.

“Socializing around food can be hard for patients and families,” says Jo Ann Snyder, R.N., nurse coordinator with Wilmot Cancer Institute’s Head & Neck clinic. “But a little preparation on everyone’s side can go a long way.”

Snyder, oncology dietitian Melissa Zahn, R.D., and speech pathologist Catherine Cook, MA, CCC-SLP, work closely to help patients regain their ability to swallow. They offer a few tips to help you get ready for Thanksgiving dinner.

Seize the opportunity: The prospect of eating in public, especially if it’s the first time, can be incredibly daunting, Zahn says. Thanksgiving dinner, though, is actually a great time to try it. Almost all of the traditional foods — mashed potatoes, moist stuffing, even turkey — are soft and can be covered with gravy or thinned with broth or water to help ease swallowing. In the weeks leading up to the holiday, Zahn suggests incorporating foods with different consistencies and broadening your diet to prepare.

Reach out: If you’ll be guests for dinner, try to head off any awkwardness and make sure your host knows what to expect, especially if they haven’t seen you in a while. Reassure them that you will be there enjoying everyone’s company even if you may not be able to eat or can only a few things, Snyder says.

Change things up: If you’re hosting Thanksgiving dinner, consider changing some traditions. Instead of having a sit-down dinner, for example, do a buffet and let everyone mingle, Zahn says. That takes the focus off eating and keeps it more on socializing. Being together, after all, is the essence of the holiday.

Participate: Remember that Thanksgiving isn’t all about eating, Snyder says. Take advantage of the time away from the table to watch the game with your family and friends or offer to help in the kitchen, whether it’s cooking or doing dishes.

Bring your own: If you’re concerned about the dishes that will be served, it’s OK to bring your own food. It doesn’t have to be typical Thanksgiving fare, Zahn says. It should be what tastes good to you and what you’re comfortable eating.

Rest up: Large gatherings can be exhausting, so plan to have restful days before and after Thanksgiving. You may even want to plan for some down time after dinner. After everyone’s had their fill of turkey, you won’t be the only one wanting to lie down. “If you need a rest, take that tryptophan nap with everyone else,” Zahn says.

Go later: If you’re not quite up for an entire dinner with a crowd, consider going afterward. You can arrive in time for dessert, maybe try a couple bites of pumpkin pie and still share in the festivities.

Most importantly, don’t avoid it: Remember that Thanksgiving is about being with the ones you love. You may have to modify the way you celebrate, Snyder says, but you shouldn’t withdraw: “Your family and friends want you no matter what.”