Self-Care During Cancer Treatment: 5 Expert Tips

“I think taking care of yourself is being able to ask other people for help.”

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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.