“I think taking care of yourself is being able to ask other people for help.”
Regardless of what kind of cancer you’ve been diagnosed with, self-care is really important. This involves not only supporting your physical health with good nutrition and physical activity, but also maintaining good mental health.
Self-care during cancer treatment has multiple benefits. First of all, it helps manage stress and improves quality of life. Second of all, in some cases, it can even improve your treatment outcomes. For example, taking good care of your nutrition needs can help prevent weight loss, which has a negative effect on cancer treatment success. (More on that later.)
If you’ve been diagnosed with cancer—or you know someone who has—here are experts’ self-care tips to make the treatment process a little easier.
1. Advocate for yourself
“I think taking care of yourself is being able to ask other people for help,” says Amy Tiersten, MD, hematologist and oncologist at Dubin Breast Center, Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City.
Asking for help can be especially difficult if you’re normally an independent or self-sufficient person. However, you may find it more difficult than usual to do everything yourself. You may feel a lot more fatigue during cancer treatment, or you might experience nausea or other disruptive side effects.
Don’t be afraid to ask family and friends for help. You might be surprised to find that many of them are eager to have a way to help you during this time. If stress or depression is the issue, reach out to a psychologist or other mental health professional for support.
2. Attend a support group
“Support groups are an excellent way to connect with people who are going through something similar to you,” says Natalie Berger, MD, hematologist and oncologist at The Mount Sinai Hospital.
It can be extremely healing and comforting to share your feelings with a group of people who are going through a similar process as you. Your peers may be able to vocalize what you’re feeling and add clarity to your life, or they may be able to help validate and normalize your emotions.
Of course, some people find it intimidating to sit and open up in front of strangers. “For everybody, this is extremely individual,” says Dr. Berger. “Even if you go to a support group, you don’t have to share. You can just go and listen, and that may also be very therapeutic.”
3. Eat a nutritious diet
You might hear a lot of opinions from friends and loved ones about what you should and should not be eating during your cancer treatment. While this advice is well-intentioned, it’s not always the best information for you.
“You will hear things. You will see things on the internet,” says Jorge Gomez, MD, lung oncologist at The Mount Sinai Hospital. “What’s important is to have a healthy, balanced diet to be able to maintain weight during treatment.”
Weight loss is really common during cancer treatment, due to things like nausea, loss of appetite, diarrhea, vomiting, and dehydration. The problem is that weight loss can be a negative factor in cancer treatment outcomes. Learn more tips for maintaining weight during cancer treatment here.
4. Fight fatigue by keeping active
Fatigue can be a cruel cycle: You’re tempted to rest, but the more you rest, the less energy you feel. Plus, too much rest can lead to loss of muscle, body function, and range of motion—all of which can have a negative effect on your overall health.
“Exercising as much as possible is really important in helping alleviate some of the side effects of medication, and being active tends to give people more energy,” says Dr. Tiersten. “Keeping active can also boost your mood and self-esteem, and improve your overall quality of life.”
This does not mean you need to enroll in daily HIIT classes. Taking a short walk or doing some stretches may not sound like much, but it can be incredibly beneficial during cancer treatment. Learn more ways to manage side effects of cancer treatment here.
5. Keep doing the things you love to do
“If you want to continue to go to work, go to work. If you want to continue with hobbies and other interests that are important to you, I encourage my patients to do that,” says Dr. Berger. These things can help bring some joy, relaxation, and normalcy into your life, even while your world feels like it’s being turned upside down during cancer treatment.
If you feel like your symptoms or treatment side effects are inhibiting you from doing the things you love, find creative ways to alter your routine so that it works for you, or ask others for help. For example, your employer may allow you to work fewer hours or from home, or if you love to bake, ask a loved one to help you with grocery shopping.
“There is hope. Maintaining a positive outlook and attitude on this battle is very important for your emotional and physical well-being,” says Dr. Berger.
Ruthee-lu Bayer, MD is the director of stem cell transplantation at Monter Cancer Center, Northwell Health.Amy Tiersten
Dr. Tiersten is a professor of medicine, hematology, and medical oncology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. She sees patients at the Dubin Breast Center.Natalie Berger
Dr. Berger is a hematologist and oncologist at The Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City.Jorge Gomez
Dr. Gomez is a hematologist and oncologist at Mount Sinai Hospital and an assistant professor of Medicine, Hematology, and Medical Oncology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.
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From all indications of this X-ray,
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cancer seems to be confined to the stomach.
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I appreciate your being so frank with me, Dr. Swanson.
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I know how you feel, but this is the time for action rather than pity.
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You need to have the will to be cured.
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Beyond that, medical science will play its part.
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Along with following treatment regimens, patients with cancer
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need to focus on their emotional health as well.
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(soothing piano music)
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I think taking care of yourself is advocating for yourself
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at your doctor's visits.
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It's great to take care of patients who are really participating
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in their care.
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(Narrator) That means leaning on family and friends for support,
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or seeking out mental healthcare, like a psychologist,
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psychiatrist, or social worker.
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It's also important to educate yourself
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on the treatment options available,
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so you can work with your doctor to find the regimen
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that fits your lifestyle and needs.
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Support groups are an excellent way to connect with people
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who are going through something similar to you.
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Talking to family and friends can be very helpful,
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but talking to somebody who's going through something similar
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But it's also important to know that even if you go to a support group,
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you don't have to share.
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You can just go and listen, and that may also be very therapeutic.
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You will hear things.
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You will see things on the internet.
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You will have friends, or friends of friends, who will tell you
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about foods that you need to avoid,
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or foods that you need to eat
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to prevent cancer or to fight cancer.
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What's important is to have a healthy, balanced diet,
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to be able to maintain your weight during treatment.
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If patients are losing weight, or if they're not eating,
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it's important to talk to your doctor because there are things
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that can be done to improve that.
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(Narrator) While it's important to listen to your body,
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and rest when you need it, too much rest can lead
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to loss of body function, muscle weakness,
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and reduced range of motion.
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That's why many cancer care teams encourage their patients
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to be physically active during cancer treatment.
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Exercise as much as possible,
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is really important in helping to alleviate some of the side effects
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of medication, and being active tends to give people more energy,
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but sometimes medications are needed for fatigue as well.
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Palliative care specialists can help us with that.
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After the diagnosis of cancer, it's important to continue
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doing the things that are important to you.
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If you want to continue to go to work, go to work.
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If you want to continue with hobbies and other interests
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that are important to you, I encourage my patients to do that.
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(Narrator) However you choose to fill your days,
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whether it be work, vacation, painting, yoga, relaxing with friends,
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it's important to stay positive.
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Maintaining a positive outlook is very important
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for your emotional and physical well-being.
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There is hope.
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Ask your doctor about any questions and concerns you may have,
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and continue to live a full and meaningful life.
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(piano music fades)
Hager KK. Management of weight loss in people with cancer. J Adv Pract Oncol. 2016 Apr;7(3):336-8.
Managing distress. Atlanta, GA: American Cancer Society. (Accessed on May 18, 2020 at https://www.cancer.org/treatment/treatments-and-side-effects/physical-side-effects/emotional-mood-changes/distress/managing-distress.html.)
Weight changes. Atlanta, GA: American Cancer Society. (Accessed on May 18, 2020 at https://www.cancer.org/treatment/treatments-and-side-effects/physical-side-effects/eating-problems/weight-changes.html.)