“Treatment [for leukemia] can take a toll on the body of patients, [so] focusing on good nutrition is extremely important,” says Sangmin Lee, MD, hematologist-oncologist at Weill Cornell Medicine and NewYork-Presbyterian.
Diet and exercise won’t cure leukemia on their own, but they serve important functions during cancer treatment. First of all, they improve your quality of life by keeping up energy levels and boosting mood, which can help counter the negative effects of the cancer treatment and cancer itself. Second of all, studies have found that those who maintain good lifestyle habits during treatment tend to have better treatment outcomes.
Diet During Leukemia Treatment
One of the biggest guidelines for patients to keep in mind is maintaining their weight. Many patients experience weight loss due to nausea and decreased appetite, which are common side effects of chemotherapy. Some patients also experience a change in taste, altering which foods they find enjoyable.
“There are certain medications that may help to increase your appetite,” says Dr. Lee. “Medical marijuana often helps in terms of appetite, as well as nausea and side effects of chemotherapy.”
Additionally, consider eating small, frequent meals, as opposed to three large meals a day. Other options include drinking high-calorie beverages between meals (such as smoothies with avocado or nut butters, or meal supplement drinks like Orgain), adding high-calorie and healthy fats to meals (like olive oil and avocado), and adding high-calorie sauces (like gravy) to meals.
Eating a high-protein diet is also important during leukemia treatment. Your body requires additional calories and protein during this period due to the effects of your treatment, especially radiation therapy, according to the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.
As for what you eat, a healthy diet during leukemia treatment is no different than what’s recommended for your everyday life: fruits and veggies, whole grains, lean protein, healthy fats, and limited sodium and added sugar. Of course, when lack of appetite is causing weight loss, getting calories becomes more important than rigidly sticking to these nutrition guidelines.
If good nutrition and weight maintenance is an issue for you, consider visiting a dietitian. Your treatment center may even have a dietitian on staff who specializes in cancer issues.
Exercise During Leukemia Treatment
There are many health benefits of exercise, and that’s especially true for people having symptoms of leukemia and side effects of cancer treatments.
A 2017 study observed that exercise is safe and beneficial for people undergoing cancer treatment, and that it can improve their quality of life during this difficult period. In particular, physical activity can really help with mood, energy levels, heart function, and anxiety, according to the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.
Of course, it can also be challenging. Since the body is fighting an illness, you’re likely to feel fatigue already, and that fatigue may be compounded by leukemia’s effect on the blood.
“Treatment for leukemia may impact their hemoglobin and blood levels, so patients may experience more fatigue when they’re doing exercise,” says Dr. Lee.
In other words, take it easy. Short walks are a great place to start if you’re extremely fatigued.
Stress Management During Leukemia Treatment
“It is important to manage stress ... because the diagnosis and treatment process is often very stressful for the patients and their caregivers as well,” says Dr. Lee.
It’s common and normal to feel helpless and stressed after a cancer diagnosis, but stress causes the release of stress hormones that can raise blood pressure, heart rate, and blood sugar. If this persists at high levels for an extended period, it can have negative effects on the body that makes cancer treatment more challenging, according to the National Cancer Institute.
Recommended ways to manage stress include:
Meditation and other relaxation methods
Therapy or group therapy
Music therapy, pet therapy, or art therapy
Treatment for cancer is always difficult, but it’s important to prioritize your self-care. “There are many things that patients can do throughout their leukemia treatment to have a positive outlook,” says Dr. Lee.