Looking after yourself

Cancer can cause physical and emotional strain.

Eating well, exercising and relaxing may help reduce stress and improve well-being. Addressing changes in your emotions and relationships early on is also very important.

Healthy eating

Eating nutritious food will help you keep as well as possible and cope with cancer and treatment side effects. Depending on your treatment, you may have special dietary needs. A dietitian can help you to plan the best foods for your situation – ones that you find tempting, easy to eat and nutritious.

Being active

You will probably find it helpful to stay active and to exercise regularly if you can. Physical activity – even if gentle or for a short duration – helps to improve circulation, reduce tiredness, decrease joint or muscle pain, and elevate mood. The amount and type of exercise you do will depend on what you are used to, how well you feel and what your doctor advises.

Start by making small changes to your daily activities, such as walking to the shops. If you want to do more vigorous exercise, ask your doctor what is best. This is particularly important if you have osteoporosis (brittle bones), as you are more at risk of bone fractures.

Don’t ignore depression

Treatment and side effects can make you feel depressed. Returning again and again to the hospital or doctor’s office – places that represent the most frightening aspects of cancer – isn’t easy. Changes to your routine, your body, your relationships and your family life can also be overwhelming.

  • Talking about your feelings or joining a support group may help.
  • Spend time with friends who you are comfortable being around, or who have a positive outlook. This may help you reduce negative thinking.
  • Be as active as possible. Plan activities for each day, such as exercise, meeting friends or going to the library.
  • Do things that make you feel good, such as watching funny movies, going for a walk, having a relaxing bath or massage, or listening to uplifting music.
  • Get up at the same time every morning, regardless of how tired you feel.
  • If the depression is ongoing, tell your doctor or hospital social worker, as medication or counselling may be useful. There is nothing wrong with seeking professional help for depression – it is just like managing any other medical condition.

More information

Contact beyondblue, an organisation that raises awareness about depression and provides support to people who need it, on 1300 22 4636 or visit www.beyondblue.org.au.

Tell your doctor about side effects

During treatment, it may be useful to write down any side effects you experience and what you did to cope with them.

Share this information with your doctor or nurse so that they know what is wrong and can try to help you. You health care team can give you suggestions for coping with side effects, prescribe a break in your treatment, or change your treatment, if appropriate.

Try to stop smoking

If you smoke, it’s best to try to quit, especially while you are having chemotherapy. Research has shown that people who have never smoked or ex-smokers have a better survival from cancer than people who continue to smoke. Recent studies also suggest that smoking during chemotherapy may reduce the effectiveness of the treatment.

  • Talk to your doctor for advice about quitting.
  • Try a complementary therapy such as acupuncture or relaxation. Clinical evidence suggests acupuncture may help people who are trying to give up smoking.
  • Learn what triggers your desire for a cigarette, such having a coffee, so you can think about ways to deal with the temptation.
  • If you miss holding a cigarette, find something else to hold in your mouth or hand, like a drinking straw.
  • Ask your friends and family to support your decision.

More information

Call the Quitline on 13 QUIT (13 7848) for a free Quit Pack and to talk to a quitting adviser or visit http://www.quitnow.gov.au/.

Complementary therapies

Complementary therapies may help you cope better with side effects such as pain. They may also increase your sense of control over what is happening to you, decrease your stress and anxiety, and improve your mood.

There are many types of complementary therapies, including acupuncture, massage, relaxation, yoga, herbal medicine and nutrition. While some cancer treatment centres offer complementary therapies as part of their services, you may have to go to a private practitioner. Ask what’s available at your hospital. Self-help CDs or DVDs can also guide you through some different techniques.

Let your doctor know about any complementary therapies you are using or thinking about trying. This is important, as some therapies may not be appropriate, depending on your conventional treatment. For example, some herbs and nutritional supplements may interact with your medication, resulting in harmful side effects or stopping treatment from working. Massage and exercise therapies may also need to be modified.

[*Box] Alternative therapies are commonly defined as those used instead of conventional treatments. These therapies may be harmful if people with cancer delay or stop using conventional treatments in favour of them. Examples include high-dose vitamin supplements, coffee enemas and magnet therapy. [End]

More information

Understanding Complementary Therapies

Massage and Cancer

Strengthening your relationships

The strong emotions you experience as a result of cancer may affect your relationships. Your experiences may cause you to develop a new outlook on your values, priorities and life in general.

If you feel uncomfortable talking about your feelings, take your time and approach others when you are ready. People usually appreciate insight into how you are feeling and guidance on providing support during and after treatment.

While you are giving yourself time to adjust to cancer, do the same for your friends and family. Everyone will react in a different way – by putting on a happy face, playing down your anxiety, or even ignoring you. They are also adjusting in their own way to changes. If someone’s behaviour upsets you, it will probably help to discuss how you both feel about the situation.

Sexuality, intimacy and cancer

The role of sexuality and intimacy in a person’s life depends on their age, environment, health, relationships, culture, beliefs and interest.

Having cancer can affect your sexuality in both physical and emotional ways. The impact of these changes depends on many factors, such as treatment and side effects, the way you and your partner communicate, and your self-confidence.

Sexual intercourse may not always be possible during or after treatment for cancer, but closeness and sharing are vital to a healthy relationship.

Chemotherapy may cause sexual difficulties, such as:

  • feeling too tired or sick to want sex
  • feeling less attractive to your partner because of the physical changes to your appearance, such as hair loss
  • menopausal symptoms such as vaginal dryness
  • difficulties having or maintaining an erection.

Often these difficulties can be managed or overcome. Talk about any physical changes you’ve experienced and how you feel with your partner. Try different positions and practices to find out what feels right for both of you.

More information

  • Talk to your doctor or a counsellor, or call the Cancer Council Helpline.

Changing body image

Cancer treatment can change the way you feel about yourself (your self-esteem). You may feel less confident about who you are and what you can do. This is common whether your body has changed physically or not.

Give yourself time to adapt to any changes. Try to see yourself as a whole person (body, mind and personality) instead of focusing only on the parts of you that have changed.

Life after treatment

You may be surprised to find out that life after cancer treatment can present its own challenges. You will need to take some time to adjust to physical and emotional changes.

You may have mixed emotions. Beforehand, you may have been busy with appointments and focused on treatment, but afterwards you may feel anxious rather than secure. You might worry about every ache and pain and wonder if the cancer is coming back.

Some people say that after cancer they have changed priorities and see life with a new clarity. For example, you may decide to travel, spend more time with family, or do volunteer work.

Although you might feel pressure to return to normal life, it’s important to remember you may not want your life to return to how it was before cancer.

You might find it helpful to:

  • take time to adjust to physical and emotional changes
  • re-establish a new daily routine at your own pace
  • maintain a healthy diet and lifestyle
  • schedule regular checkups with your doctor
  • share your concerns with family and friends and tell them how to support you.

If you have continued feelings of sadness, have trouble getting up in the morning or have lost motivation to do things that previously gave you pleasure, talk to your doctor. You may be clinically depressed, and counselling or medication may help you.

More information

Living Well After Cancer

Living Well After Cancer Program

Living Well After Cancer is a free community education program run by Cancer Council NSW and trained cancer survivors. It is held throughout NSW.

The program includes practical information and open discussion for people who are cancer survivors, their carers, family, friends and work colleagues.

Participants can:

  • discuss changes, challenges and opportunities they may face after completing treatment
  • learn how to connect with others
  • share tips and ideas about living well after cancer.

More information

Call 1300 200 558 or email livingwellaftercancer@nswcc.org.au

What if the cancer comes back?

For some people, cancer does come back after treatment, which is known as a relapse (recurrence).

Regular checkups allow your doctor to keep an eye on your health and to look for signs that the cancer may be coming back.

If you have a relapse, further treatment can be given – usually using a different combination of chemotherapy drugs from those you had before. This may lead to a second remission.