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Dunbar: This holiday season, think good health


The holiday season brings joy to many, but this time can also make managing the holidays challenging, especially for people with cancer or a history of cancer.

The amount of respiratory illness (fever plus cough or sore throat) caused by COVID-19, the flu, and RSV is elevated or increasing nationwide. When it comes to contagious viruses like the flu, cancer patients are among those most vulnerable to infection. So, cancer patients need to protect themselves.

As a cancer survivor, the only thing I want this holiday season is the gift of good health. I remember being young and reading my parents’ annual Christmas card that they would send out. My mom always ended her letter with something about wishing them the gift of good health. As a kid and even a young adult, I thought this was boring and stuffy. But … as a mom of three kids, a wife, a daughter to parents in their 70s, and a cancer survivor, I’ll take the gift of good health over everything.

But what does “good health” really mean? And, as a cancer survivor, is good health genuinely attainable?

We’re told to do many things to achieve good health: don’t smoke, exercise regularly, eat a well-balanced diet, etc. While doing the opposite of these is all proven to increase a person’s chance of getting cancer and other illnesses, there are several things we can do for our health that don’t require sacrificing that second helping of mashed potatoes and gravy: cancer screenings and vaccinations.

I get it: cancer screenings are not fun. But trust me, having cancer is worse. While my routine mammogram didn’t prevent my breast cancer, it found it early when it was easier to treat. The tests that check for breast, lung, colon and cervical cancer can help find cancer early when it may be easier to treat or cure. By the time you get symptoms, the cancer may have grown and spread, making it harder to treat. I believe there is power in prevention — and the proof backs it up: colorectal cancer is the second deadliest cancer of men and women combined in the United States, many of which could have been prevented by getting screened.

Another part of our health that is often overlooked is our mental health. For this reason, my advice during the holidays is to enjoy them. Whether you’re living with cancer now or are just wanting to avoid getting sick over the holidays, our mental health is equally important as our physical health.

We all learned during the COVID-19 pandemic that isolating ourselves from others can be damaging. We have also learned a lot over the last three years about protecting ourselves from germs … so keep washing your hands and talk with your doctor about which winter respiratory vaccines and cancer screenings are right for you.

This holiday season, I challenge you to give yourself the gift of health: check out this cancer screening cheat sheet and list of vaccinations to find out which ones are recommended.

Angela Dunbar is a breast cancer survivor and program director of CDC Foundation’s Empowered Health Program.

health, holidays