Proactive steps you can take to improve your health during cancer treatment

February 2, 2016 in Disease Management  •  By Miles Varn
What you can do to be healthier during cancer treatment

If you or a loved one is undergoing cancer treatment, there are a number of things you can do to take good care of yourself and improve your overall wellness. Eating a healthy diet, getting exercise, and effectively managing stress all offer a number of benefits.

What to eat

Cancer treatment can affect your appetite and weight. Some treatments cause nausea and loss of appetite while others can result in weight gain. It’s important to eat a balanced diet that includes whole grains, fruits and vegetables, lean meats or other protein sources like nuts, legumes, eggs, and fish to keep your energy up and strengthen your immune function. If you don’t have much appetite or are nauseated, it can be helpful to eat a number of smaller meals of nutritious, calorie-rich foods such as avocados, nuts and nut butter, and cheese to help maintain your weight.

Before taking any dietary or herbal supplements, talk with your physician. Some supplements have been found to interfere with certain cancer treatments. If you’re concerned that you’re not getting the nutrients you need from your diet, it can be helpful to consult a dietitian who specializes in supporting people undergoing cancer treatment.

Because cancer treatment can weaken your immune system, food safety is essential. Avoid unpasteurized dairy and fruit juices, scrub and thoroughly rinse all fruits and vegetables including the rinds and peels that you don’t eat, and make sure all food is thoroughly cooked.

Why is exercise important during cancer treatment?

Exercise can reduce fatigue, improve your mood, lessen nausea, and help reduce stress. In fact, studies have found that patients who take part in moderate exercise had a 40 to 50 percent lower incidence of fatigue during treatment.

Your physician may recommend you take part in an exercise program, also known as “prehab”, before treatment begins to build your strength and stamina. Ideally, your exercise program should include 30 minutes a day of aerobic activity, strength training, and stretching to keep muscles and joints limber. If you don’t have the stamina for 30 minutes of activity, you can break your exercise into three 10-minute sessions and still get significant benefits.

Before starting any exercise program during cancer treatment, talk with your doctor about what types of activity are safe and appropriate for you. Ask for a referral to a physical therapist who works with cancer patients so you can get your exercise in a supervised setting.

Manage stress for better wellbeing

While there is no clinical evidence that directly links stress and the development of cancer, there are studies that show that chronic stress can weaken the immune system, a special concern for people undergoing cancer treatments that have the same negative effect on their immune system. In addition, there have been a number of animal studies that have suggested a possible link between stress and a tumor’s ability to grow, spread, and recur.

Some effective methods of stress management include:

  • relaxation, meditation, and deep breathing training
  • talk therapy, counselling, or joining a support group
  • yoga and tai chi
  • biofeedback
  • exercise

It’s also helpful to maintain your social connections, getting together with friends and family in a low pressure environment.

By taking these proactive steps, you can stay as strong and healthy as possible during treatment.