Our nurses at Christmas
Lisa Callender is a Teenage Cancer Trust Clinical Nurse Specialist, based in Ulster hospital, supporting inpatient and outpatient cancer patients aged 16-25.
This Christmas won’t be like the last one, and Christmases to follow might be different too. But for now, we’re here to help make this Christmas as special as we can.
"I absolutely love Christmas – it’s my favourite time of the year. And being a nurse only makes me more aware of how special it can be.
"The outpatients ward in Ulster Hospital is open right up until Christmas day and Boxing day, providing the same level of care to our patients as always. And our inpatients ward is open all over Christmas, for those patients who need to stay in.
"Christmas and the new year can be a time of year that feels sad for young people with cancer. They might not feel very focussed on the festivities if they’re feeling unwell or are thinking about treatment. They’re often also worried about missing out on their usual and special Christmas traditions, with family and friends.
"In Belfast, there’s a Christmas market which is really popular with families and young people. But people who are having chemotherapy have lower immune systems, meaning large groups of people, cold weather and eating from food stands can be unwise. Losing weight and hair can also make people feel the cold more, and often this time of year, where everyone is getting glammed up, is difficult when someone is struggling with changes to their body or appearance. Even just having a festive drink with friends or colleagues can be off the table – cancer can really take away the spontaneity of this time of year for the young people I care for.
"That’s why we as the staff on the ward try and make it as festive as possible. From early December, we start to decorate with a tree, tinsel and lights. The nurses make an effort by wearing Santa earrings or Christmas badges. We want it to feel different from the rest of the year, so patients know that even if things feel so different for them at the moment, some things still carry on. And Christmas should be one of them.
"We have two previous patients who come back to help us decorate our tree every year. Often patients and their families buy us ornaments to hang on the tree, and we’ve kept every single one. Some are 10 years old, and looking quite tired now, but we’ll never throw them away. They remind us of that patient – where they might be now if they went into remission, or a memory of them if they passed away. Decorating the tree with these memories is a special Christmas tradition for us.
"Young people often want to know whether their treatment will impact their Christmas. Our priority to is make sure they’re on track with their schedule, rearranging appointments if it falls on a day when the outpatients ward is closed, for example. But we’ll always do our best to give a young person as much of a Christmas as possible – treatment is important but so is this time of year.
"Christmas food can be what people miss the most. Our canteen do a great job making a Christmas dinner, but young people might not want to eat that when they’re going through treatment. Their taste buds and appetite can be affected, so we let them bring in whatever they fancy. No one feels obliged to eat anything in particular – if they want a packet of sweets as their Christmas dinner, that’s fine by us!
"One of my favourite moments on the ward at Christmas is when local carol singers come by to sing. However old you are, it brings the staff and the young people together in the waiting room to listen, and I always find it quite emotional. You can feel that people are looking back as well as looking forward.
"It’s important for my own wellbeing that I’m able to separate my life with my work, but that can be hard at Christmas. Sometimes, I’ll have a quiet think to myself about someone I’m supporting, so that I can then move on. I have a 9-year-old daughter, who also keeps me busy at Christmas! Once I’m off work, my focus is my family, just like everyone else.
"But being a nurse at Christmas is very special. You get to see people at a landmark time of year. As the new year approaches, people are reflective and encouraged – they look back on where they’ve come and think ‘if I got through that, I can do anything.’ It’s the time of year where I get asked the most for information on taking on new things, whether that’s treatment or back-packing across Australia!
"I get to think about transitions too – people going from being a cancer patient to a cancer survivor. This Christmas won’t be like the last one, and Christmases to follow might be different too. But for now, we’re here to help make this Christmas as special as we can. The landscape is constantly changing, and that’s a lovely thing to be a part of."
Our Youth Support Coordinators at Christmas
Sarah Smith and Linda Falzarano are Youth Support Coordinators at University College Hospital’s Teenage Cancer Trust unit in London.
I always choose to work right up until Christmas. I’m mindful that I get to go home for Christmas and these young people don’t
What makes Christmas difficult for young people with cancer?
Sarah: No one wants to be in hospital or feeling unwell at such a special time of year. It’s also a time of being social and eating – two things that are harder for our patients. This can make them feel very isolated. Social media can be really great, but it also means they can see what they’re missing out on.
Linda: We make sure that even if someone isn’t feeling up to doing much, we include them as much as possible in the groups and activities. When you’re unwell, its feeling included that really counts.
What’s it like on the unit over Christmas?
Sarah: It’s our busiest time of year. We don’t work over bank holidays so we try and see as many of the patients before the Christmas period as possible. Because it’s an important family time, they’ll try to get as many young people home for Christmas day as possible. So only the sickest patients will be on the unit over Christmas.
Linda: I do a lot of organising for Christmas. We have a charity which comes in to provide a really nice Christmas lunch for patients and their families. This means young people and their families can come together on Christmas day. We also arrange for every young person to get a present on Christmas morning.
Sarah: We start decorating from 15th December. We make it a big activity and patients can come and help out too.
Linda: I buy fairy lights for each patient’s cubicle. It helps make their space feel a bit more festive. We also get them chocolate advent calendars – even if they don’t feel like eating the chocolate, it’s a bit of normality and tradition.
Sarah: Generally people’s appetite is affected by cancer treatment, so it can be hard to know what a patient might want to eat. We have a food blender where we can make smoothies and milkshakes that are easier to eat.
Linda: We also have a diverse community of patients, so we make sure that over Christmas we have lots of food options available.
What makes working over Christmas special for you?
Sarah: It’s hard to explain – it’s not very ‘nice’ but there’s nowhere else I’d rather be. You want to make it the very best you can for them.
Linda: I always choose to work right up until Christmas. It is a nice atmosphere during this time as the ward is decorated and it is busier with outside charities coming in to entertain the young people. I’m mindful that I get to go home for Christmas and these young people don’t.