Following cancer treatment, you will likely have some adjustments to make in your lifestyle. This is common given that you have undergone a major event in your life. It is important to recognize what impact a cancer diagnosis and treatment has had on you, not just medically, but in almost every aspect of your life.
The advice for cancer survivors is no different than the advice for anyone who wants to improve their health—get regular exercise and improve your diet. But for cancer survivors these strategies have added benefits. Research shows that simple steps can improve the quality of your life, smoothing your transition from treatment into survivorship. Take care of your body after cancer treatment by following these guidelines:
Regular exercise increases your sense of well-being after cancer treatment and can speed your recovery. Cancer survivors who exercise often experience increased strength and endurance; stronger immune systems; fewer signs and symptoms of depression; less anxiety; reduced fatigue; less difficulty sleeping; improved mood; and higher self-esteem.
Eat a Balanced Diet
Vary your diet to include lots of fruits and vegetables, as well as whole grains. When it comes to selecting your diet, the American Cancer Society recommends that cancer survivors:
Maintain a Healthy Weight
- Eat five or more servings of fruits and vegetables every day.
- Choose healthy fats, including foods high in 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 beans.
- Choose healthy sources of carbohydrates, such as whole grains, legumes, fruits, and vegetables.
- Maintain a balanced diet that combines these recommended foods to ensure that you’re getting plenty of the vitamins and nutrients you need to help make your body strong.
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.
Stop Using Tobacco
If you use tobacco, it’s the time to kick the habit once and for all. Smoking or using chewing tobacco puts you at risk for several types of cancer. Stopping now could reduce your risk of cancer recurrence and also reduces your risk of developing a second type of cancer.
If you need help to stop smoking, Touro offers "I Can Quit", a smoking cessation program designed to give you information and support. Contact the Touro Supportive Cancer Care Center at (504) 897-8678 for information and meeting schedules.
Drink Alcohol in Moderation or Not at All
If you choose to drink alcohol, keep it to a minimum. The recommended alcohol consumption for women and anyone over the age of 65 is no more than one drink a day; and men should drink no more than two drinks per day.
Mental & Emotional Well-being
When you were diagnosed with cancer, you might have devoted all your time to focusing on your treatment and getting healthy again. Now that you’ve completed treatment, your focus is back on the things that you did before. However, you may not be ready or able to take care of all of your responsibilities. This can make you feel stressed and overwhelmed.
Don’t feel you need to do everything that you did before. Take time for yourself as you try to get your daily routine back on track. Try exercising to build up your strength, talking with other survivors, and taking time for activities you enjoy.
Depression and Anxiety
Lingering feelings of sadness, helplessness, nervousness, and even anger can interfere with your daily life. For many people emotions associated with cancer and cancer treatment will dissipate. But for others, these feelings can develop into depression. If you’re feeling depressed or anxious, tell your doctor who can refer you to a counselor for talk therapy and/or provide you with medication that can help.
Though you might be reluctant to discuss your feelings for fear this is a sign of weakness, know that depression and anxiety are common in cancer survivors. Recognition of symptoms and receipt of appropriate treatment are keys to successfully overcoming psychological and emotional conditions.
If surgery or other treatment changed your appearance, you might feel self-conscious about your body. Changes in skin color, weight gain or loss, or the loss of your hair might make you feel like staying at home rather than being around other people. You might withdraw from friends and family. And self-consciousness can strain your relationship with your partner if you don’t feel worthy of love or affection.
Learn to focus on ways cancer has made you a stronger person and realize that you’re more than the scars that cancer has left behind. When you’re more confident about your appearance, you will feel more comfortable around others.
You might feel as if others can’t understand what you’ve been through, which makes it hard to relate to other people often leading to feelings of loneliness. Friends and family might be unsure of how to help you, which can make you feel isolated from others.
Don’t deal with loneliness on your own. Consider joining a support group with others who are going through the same emotions you are and understand what it means to have survived cancer.
If you knew other people with cancer who died of the disease, you might wonder why you lived. It’s common to feel guilty about living when other people died. It’s difficult to comprehend why some people with cancer live and others don’t. But maybe it’s best not to try to make sense of it. Instead, think about what you’re going to do to make your life meaningful and give your survival purpose. Because you have experience with cancer, you might like to help other people who’ve just been diagnosed with your same disease.
Fear of Recurrence
Fear of recurrence is very common in cancer survivors. You might worry that every ache and pain is a sign that your cancer has returned. Eventually these fears will fade, though they may never go away completely.
Some things that you can consider doing to deal with your fear of recurrence are:
- Ask your doctor about what you can do to reduce your chances of recurrence.
- Take care of your body.
- Focus your mind on keeping yourself healthy.
- Eat a healthy diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables.
- If you have the energy, get some exercise and get enough sleep.
- Try to keep busy. Get out of the house and find activities that will take your mind off your fears.
Remain open to talking about your fears. Express your concerns to your friends, family, other cancer survivors, your doctor, or a mental health counselor. If you’re uncomfortable with the idea of discussing your fears, try recording your thoughts in a journal.
Go to all of your follow-up appointments. You may fear the worst when it’s time for your next follow-up clinic visit. Don’t let that stop you from going. When talking with your doctor, ask questions about any signs or symptoms that concern you. Ask about your risk of recurrence. When you have more information, you may find that you feel more in control.
Friends and family provide an important circle of support for you as you experience recovery. Learn how to nurture relationships so that you can avoid common problems. Your friends and family love you and are worried about you—but they may have strange ways of showing it. Some people withdraw and avoid talking to you. Others smother you and treat you like a child.
Whether you encounter problems with your relationships often depends on the strength of the relationships beforehand. Relationships that were already strained tend to continue that way after cancer, sometimes completely falling apart. Strong relationships can become even stronger through the cancer experience.
For many people, an experience with cancer can open up opportunities to repair strained relationships and strengthen already strong ones. To accomplish this, you might consider some of the following suggestions:
Other Areas of Concern
- Share your personal thoughts and feelings about your diagnosis and treatment for cancer with loved ones—this often can lead to discussions about other topics.
- Invite others to participate in your care during recovery—this can help you to spend time with family and friends.
- Talk about meaningful topics with others that often do not get discussed—examples can include the purpose of life, goals for living and death.
Throughout recovery, there are several other lifestyle adjustments you will likely encounter. In addition to physical, psychological/emotional, and relationship issues, some of the more common areas of concern include:
- Financial burden associated with the medical cost of cancer treatment
- Changes in physical appearance and other issues associated with body image
- Issues involving sexuality, sexual health and intimacy
- Questions of spiritual faith due to cancer diagnosis
- Cope with cultural views regarding cancer
- Adjustments associated with returning to work and/or a normal routine
- Restrictions on physical activity and/or diet
- Changes in behavior related to smoking, drinking
How to Get Help
While experiencing any of these emotions is normal, that doesn’t mean you have to suffer alone. If you find that your feelings are overwhelming you or interfering in your every day life, it’s a good idea to consider getting some outside help.
Sometimes talking with friends or family can help. But you might feel like those people can’t truly understand what you’re going through if they haven’t had cancer. You might consider using one or more of the following options or come up with one of your own:
- Meet with a counselor. Your doctor can refer you to a mental health professional who can help you sort through your thoughts and feelings and come up with ways to better cope with cancer following treatment.
- Talk with another cancer survivor. Discuss your concerns with someone else who has completed cancer treatment and understands what it is like to be in recovery.
- Attend a support group. Support groups, whether in your community or online, provide a great place to share your feelings and hear from others who are going through a similar experience. It is an opportunity for you to learn new ways of coping with fears.
- Contact cancer organizations. Call the American Cancer Society, http://csn.cancer.org/ CancerCare, http://www.cancercare.org/patients_and_survivors LIVESTRONG http://www.livestrong.org/Get-Help/Get-One-On-One-Support and other organizations to talk with a person who has had a similar experience with cancer as you. This is an opportunity to talk on the phone with a cancer survivor to receive information and peer support.
- Come up with your own plan for coping with your emotions. You know what works best for you. Have an open mind and try different strategies to find out what brings you the most peace and comfort.