Cancer survivors: Care for your body after treatment
Medically reviewed on October 10, 2017
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, get good sleep, reduce stress, avoid tobacco and limit the amount of alcohol you drink.
But for cancer survivors, the following 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
- Less pain
- Improved sleep
- Lower risk of the cancer recurring
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 150 minutes a week, including strength training at least two 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.
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 entrees, the American Cancer Society recommends that cancer survivors:
- Eat at least 2.5 cups of fruits and vegetables every day
- Choose healthy fats, including omega-3 fatty acids, such as those found in fish and walnuts
- 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.
Maintain a healthy weight
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 dietitian 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.
Sleep problems are more common in people with cancer, even survivors. This can be due to physical changes, side effects of treatment, stress or other reasons.
But getting enough sleep is an important part of your recovery. Sleeping gives your mind and body time to rejuvenate and refresh to help you function at your best while you're awake. Getting good sleep can boost cognitive skills, improve hormone function and lower blood pressure. It can also just make you feel better in general.
To optimize your chances at getting good sleep, practice healthy sleep hygiene:
- Avoid caffeine for at least 8 hours before bedtime
- Stick to a regular sleep schedule
- Avoid computer or television screens for 1 to 2 hours before bedtime
- Exercise no later than 2 to 3 hours before going to bed
- Keep your bedroom quiet and dim
If you feel excessively sleepy during the day, talk with your doctor. You may have a sleep disorder or a problem caused by side effects of your cancer or its treatment.
As a cancer survivor, you may find that the physical, emotional and social effects have taken a toll on your psyche. Though there's no evidence that managing stress improves chances of cancer survival, using effective coping strategies to deal with stress can greatly improve your quality of life by helping relieve depression, anxiety, and symptoms related to the cancer and its treatment.
Effective stress management strategies may include:
- Relaxation or meditation techniques, such as mindfulness training
- Cancer support groups
- Medications for depression or anxiety
- Interacting with friends and family
Stop using tobacco
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.
Drink alcohol in moderation, if at all
If you choose to drink alcohol, do so in moderation. For healthy adults, that means up to one drink a day for women of all ages and men older than age 65, and up to two drinks a day for men age 65 and younger.
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.
Do what you can
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 routine can make it more likely that you'll stick with these changes for the rest of your life.