Finding the Way Through the Holidays With a Feeding Tube

“It is not the most intellectual of the species that survives; it is not
the strongest that survives; but the species that survives is the one
that is able best to adapt and adjust to the changing environment
in which it finds itself.” – Charles Darwin

With the Thanksgiving holiday before us, I feel grateful for the honor and privilege of being welcomed by the incredible people who are members of our Head and Neck Cancer Survivor Group. Through my career as an oncology nurse, I have been strongly connected to people who were facing a head and neck cancer diagnosis and its treatment. Many of these individuals face speech, swallowing, and incredible barriers to eating through their rehabilitation process, and beyond.

Can you imagine, for a moment, what it would be like if you suddenly could never savor another bite of food? What would you miss the most? Holiday meals? Pumpkin pie? Birthday cake? A burger? Mashed potatoes and gravy? We may never realize how much food is integral to our lives, until we are unable to eat food the way we are used to.

The concept of life without chewing, tasting, and swallowing food is a strange and major challenge. And, if we think about it, every celebratory get-together is centered around food. Because not being able to eat in unison with others puts one in a precarious social situation. For instance, it becomes tempting to decline all social events because the person feels uncomfortable, or it makes others feel uncomfortable.

If you are a head and neck cancer patient or survivor, I don’t need to tell you what a challenge it is to learn to embrace the holidays with a feeding tube. The most important thing for everyone facing cancer and the effect of treatments is to find balance. With that mindset, we offer these tips to help ease this transition this holiday season:

  • If you can, try to stick to your normal mealtimes and other routines as much as possible.
  • Did you know that all of what we consider as flavors are scents? You know all too well the power of smell and how scents induce memories and evoke comforting feelings. You can partake in the holiday foods you enjoy as blenderized meals, and the aroma of adding your favorite herbs and spices can help jump-start your digestion.
  • Take a walk – get out in nature. Physical activity in nature helps all of us feel more at peace, less blue, and puts things in perspective. This is just taking loving care of ourselves.
  • There’s nothing better than giving of our time and talents to others during the holidays. It helps take us away from ourselves and brings us joy. People who do well in life, especially after traumatic struggles, found ways to be of service to others, and opportunities to give back. Finding meaning in one’s suffering, can lead to a greater sense of purpose.
  • Because food has played a leading role in all our lives, being unable to taste and eat the beautiful food you see can bring a great amount of grief and sadness. It’s okay to feel these emotions. Acknowledge them and try to find ways to focus on your family, friends and loved ones instead.
  • It will take you time to get used to managing social events. Remember you have choices – it’s okay if your best choice is simply not to participate in a holiday meal. Take a walk or go to another room. Or, have your meal at home and join the group after their meal. Focus on the people around you and being with friends and family, not on the fact that you can’t eat.
  • The table is for gathering, not just for eating. This is fresh territory for some of you. Holidays are about giving thanks and gratitude for our blessings. Stay focused on the togetherness, conversation, storytelling, sharing, and LOVE.
  • Talk to your family about beginning a holiday tradition that doesn’t revolve around food. It’s important to make some changes to these traditions to help you stay connected. For instance, having a talent contest, playing a family game, or taking a walk together after the meal.
  • Remember, that getting together with friends and family is about sharing. By its nature, the diagnosis of cancer, its treatment, and the barriers presented by illness generally tends to isolate us from other humans. We are not meant to live in isolation, and the holidays are an important opportunity to socialize.

As with any demanding situation, this is easier to deal with this when you have a support system in place. That’s why our Head and Neck Survivor Group is so important. It’s comprised of people who understand what it is like to be living in a food-free world.

Please remember, there is a process to finding life after cancer. It doesn’t happen overnight, it usually comes with time, effort, and fierce determination to improve our situation. The capacity for growth in the aftershock of the challenges presented by the diagnosis and treatment of head and neck cancer come by purposefully and courageously responding to, and engaging with, the struggles and challenges we face.

The holidays are here!  You’ve expressed how tough it is to learn to enjoy our best life – beyond eating. Though this is unfamiliar territory for some of you, we’ve watched you and we know “you can do hard things.” Take a deep cleansing breath and reflect deeply at all you have been through, and how far you have come. We wish you peace, contentment, and that you find your blessings through this Holiday season.

Try these:

Pumpkin Spice Latte that is designed for tube feeding but is delicious to share with those who eat by mouth.

Visit Natural Tube Feeding, which is a website created by Claire Kariya, RD, CNSC, for more recipe ideas and to learn about blenderized tube feeding. Claire is a registered dietician and Blenderized Tube Feeding Expert, who is dedicated to helping people who depend on tube feeding for their nutrition.