Simple steps can improve your sense of well-being and your quality of life after cancer treatment. Find out what you can do.
By Mayo Clinic Staff
After your cancer treatment, as a cancer survivor you're eager to return to good health. But beyond your initial recovery, there are ways to improve your long-term health so that you can enjoy the years ahead as a cancer survivor.
The recommendations for cancer survivors are no different from the recommendations for anyone who wants to improve his or her health: Exercise, eat a balanced diet, maintain a healthy weight, avoid tobacco and limit the amount of alcohol you drink. But for cancer survivors, these strategies have added benefits. These simple steps can improve your quality of life, smoothing your transition into survivorship. Here's what you can do to take care of yourself after cancer treatment.
Regular exercise increases your sense of well-being after cancer treatment and can speed your recovery. Cancer survivors who exercise may experience:
- Increased strength and endurance
- Fewer signs and symptoms of depression
- Less anxiety
- Reduced fatigue
- Improved mood
- Higher self-esteem
Adding physical activity to your daily routine doesn't take a lot of extra work. Focus on small steps to make your life more active. Take the stairs more often or park farther from your destination and walk the rest of the way. Check with your doctor before you begin any exercise program.
With your doctor's approval, start slowly and work your way up. The American Cancer Society recommends adult cancer survivors exercise for at least 30 minutes five or more days a week. As you recover and adjust, you might find that more exercise makes you feel even better.
Sometimes you won't feel like exercising, and that's OK. Don't feel guilty if lingering treatment side effects, such as fatigue, keep you sidelined. When you feel up to it, take a walk around the block. Do what you can, and remember that rest also is important to your recovery.
Exercise has many benefits and some early studies suggested that it may also reduce the risk of a cancer recurrence and reduce the risk of dying of cancer. Many cancer survivors are concerned about cancer recurrence and want to do all they can to avoid it. While the evidence that exercise can reduce the risk of dying of cancer is preliminary, the evidence for the benefits of exercise to your heart, lungs and other body systems is substantial. For this reason, cancer survivors are encouraged to exercise.
Vary your diet to include lots of fruits and vegetables, as well as whole grains. When it comes to selecting your entrees, the American Cancer Society recommends that cancer survivors:
- Eat five or more servings of fruits and vegetables every day
- Choose healthy fats, including omega-3 fatty acids, rather than saturated fats or trans fats
- Select proteins that are low in saturated fat, such as fish, lean meats, eggs, nuts, seeds and legumes
- Opt for healthy sources of carbohydrates, such as whole grains, legumes, and fruits and vegetables
This combination of foods will ensure that you're eating plenty of the vitamins and nutrients you need to help make your body strong.
It's not known if a certain diet or certain nutrients can keep cancer from recurring. Studies examining low-fat diets or diets that contain specific fruits and vegetables have had mixed results. In general, it's a good idea to eat a varied diet that emphasizes fruits and vegetables.
While it may be tempting to supplement your diet with a host of vitamin and mineral supplements, resist that urge. Some cancer survivors think that if a small amount of vitamins is good, a large amount must be even better. But that isn't the case. In fact, large amounts of certain nutrients can hurt you. If you're concerned about getting all the vitamins you need, ask your doctor if taking a daily multivitamin is right for you.
You may have gained or lost weight during treatment. Try to get your weight to a healthy level. Talk to your doctor about what a healthy weight is for you and the best way to go about achieving that goal weight.
For cancer survivors who need to gain weight, this will likely involve coming up with ways to make food more appealing and easier to eat. Talk to a dietician who can help you devise ways to gain weight safely. You and your doctor can work together to control nausea, pain or other side effects of cancer treatment that may be preventing you from getting the nutrition you need.
For cancer survivors who need to lose weight, take steps to lose weight slowly — no more than 2 pounds (about 1 kilogram) a week. Control the number of calories you eat and balance this with exercise. If you need to lose a lot of weight, it can seem daunting. Take it slowly and stick to it.
Kick the habit once and for all. Smoking or using chewing tobacco puts you at risk of several types of cancer. Stopping now could reduce your risk of cancer recurrence and also lower your risk of developing a second type of cancer (second primary cancer).
If you've tried quitting in the past but haven't had much success, seek help. Talk to your doctor about resources to help you quit.
If you drink alcohol, keep it to a minimum. Women should drink no more than one drink a day, and men no more than two drinks a day.
Alcohol does have health benefits in some people — for instance, consuming a drink a day can reduce your risk of heart disease. But it also increases the risk of certain cancers, including those of the mouth and throat. While it isn't clear whether drinking alcohol can cause cancer recurrence, it can increase your risk of a second primary cancer.
Weigh the risks and benefits of drinking alcohol and talk it over with your doctor.
While you may worry that it will take an entire overhaul of your lifestyle to achieve all these goals, do what you can and make changes slowly. Easing into a healthy diet or regular exercise can make it more likely that you'll stick with these changes for the rest of your life.
Oct. 12, 2011
- Doyle C, et al. Nutrition and physical activity during and after cancer treatment: An American Cancer Society guide for informed choices. CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians. 2006;56:323.
- World Cancer Research Fund/American Institute for Cancer Research. Food, Nutrition, Physical Activity and the Prevention of Cancer: A Global Perspective. Washington, D.C.: American Institute for Cancer Research; 2007. http://www.dietandcancerreport.org/?p=er&JServSessionIdr004=qbz0j53kr1.app246a. Accessed Sept. 26, 2011.
- Pekmezi DW, et al. Updated evidence in support of diet and exercise interventions in cancer survivors. Acta Oncologica. 2011;50:167.
- Facing forward: Life after cancer treatment. National Cancer Institute. http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/coping/life-after-treatment/AllPages. Accessed Sept. 26, 2011.