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Winter Safety Tips for the Blood Cancer Patient

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Updated November 30, 2011

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

For those of us who live in northern climates, winter is like death and taxes -- inevitable. While we all know it will come around eventually, we are somehow surprised when the temperatures plummet and the ice sets in.

Old man winter does deserve our attention, however, and it is a good idea to prepare for his yearly visit. Cold temperatures and storms can carry health issues and hazards with them -- some of them of particular concern to the patient with a blood cancer. Check out these tips for winter safety before you settle in for a long hibernation, or not.

Ice, Ice, Baby:

Be careful to prevent and avoid icy patches around your home. As a blood cancer patient, you are prone to having thrombocytopenia (low platelets) either as a result of your cancer or the treatment of it. If you have a slip or fall with low platelets, serious and severe bleeding can follow.

  • Make a note of any leaky or clogged gutters and get them repaired in autumn.
  • Sprinkle ice patches with cat litter or salt to help them melt away.
  • Keep your eye out for ice patches when walking in public areas.

I Didn’t Feel a Thing…:

If you are experiencing peripheral neuropathy as a result of your cancer treatment, sensation might be decreased to your fingers and toes. Coincidentally, these are areas that are prone to frostbite and extreme cold. Ears, cheeks, nose and chin are also high-risk frostbite areas.

Making sure you dress properly for the outdoors will be especially important. Warm gloves, boots, and scarves pulled up around your face will help to prevent frostbite. Even if you can’t feel how cold it is, bundle up. Check out your skin for signs of frostbite:

  • Skin may appear white or gray
  • Skin may feel firm to the touch
  • The area may be numb (is it really cold in here, or do I have neuropathy?)

How to Treat Frostbite

Put a Hat on That Head!:

Although the myth that we lose most of our body heat through our heads has been debunked, it is still important for you to put on a hat when going out in winter. This is particularly true if you have alopecia (hair loss) related to your cancer therapy.

I am sure you have already experienced this to an extent when you first lost your hair. The world feels like a cold, cold place when you lose the protective covering of your locks! Even temperatures that are only slightly cool will make you feel uncomfortable, so put on that toque before you brave the outdoors.

Step Away From That Shovel:

Snow removal -- someone’s gotta do it. But does it have to be you? Shoveling snow, even the light stuff, can be hard work if you aren’t accustomed to it. This is especially true if you are anemic, or have low red blood cell counts as a result of your cancer or the treatment of it.

If your body does not have enough hemoglobin, it is not able to carry adequate oxygen to your tissues -- muscles, heart and lungs included. During strenuous activity like snow shoveling, you could be depriving your body of the extra oxygen it needs for the increased workload.

If a helpful friend or neighbor offers to do your walkway, take them up on it. How about the kids on the street? Maybe they would like to make a few dollars each time the snow falls.

If all else fails and you do need to do a bit of shoveling yourself, be sure to take it easy, work slowly, and stop for frequent breaks to let your body recuperate. Then, when you are done, get cozy indoors with a warm beverage and let yourself relax and admire your work!

And the Sun Still Shines:

Without the reminder of scorching heat, many of us forget that the sun can still cause damage to your skin in the winter. If you have received certain types of chemotherapy or radiation for your cancer, you are at greater risk.

If you plan to spend any time outdoors this winter, please remember to apply sunscreen with at least an SPF of 30 to your exposed skin.

The Getaway Car:

Driving on winter roads can be dangerous and scary at times. While avoiding driving on slippery roads may be an option for some, there are times when you may need your car as transportation for emergencies, doctor appointments, or treatments at your cancer center.

To prepare for this, follow a few steps early in the season:

  • Consider snow tires, if necessary.
  • Get your car serviced and winterized.
  • Make sure your windshield washer fluid is intended for cold temperatures.
  • Pack along a car emergency kit.
  • Keep your gas tank at least half full at all times.
  • Let a friend or loved one know where and when you are heading out, as well as the route you expect to take.
  • Take along a cell phone if you have one.
  • Avoid the roads when travel advisories are issued.

A Tip for Hibernators:

Even if you plan to hibernate and not emerge from your home until spring, there is still a little winter safety preparing you can do.

Summing it Up:

While there is nothing we can do to keep winter and cold temperatures away, there are things we can do to make sure we are prepared.

For patients with lymphoma, leukemia, or myeloma, there may be a few extra items to consider, but taking a few minutes to get things in order can help to prevent any health or safety issues this winter -- no matter how nasty it gets out there!

Sources:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Be Prepared to Stay Safe and Healthy in Winter. http://www.cdc.gov/Features/WinterWeather/. Accessed November 24, 2011.

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