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Healthy lifestyle during and after cancer

Being diagnosed with cancer is likely to impact lots of areas of your life. You’ll have the physical and emotional changes to deal with as well as your treatment and its possible side-effects. It’s important to look after yourself during this time. One of the ways you can do this is by maintaining a healthy lifestyle.

After a cancer diagnosis, lots of people re-evaluate their existing lifestyle to see what positive changes they can make for all aspects of their health. And setting realistic goals and working towards them may help you feel more in control of your life at a time when your future can feel uncertain.

In this article, we explain some of the ways in which your lifestyle might affect you and your health. You’ll also find some ideas for lifestyle changes that can improve your health and may help you cope with the changes cancer brings.

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  • Keeping active Keeping active

    Being physically active is good for you. If you have cancer and you’re having treatment, you may not feel like taking exercise or being active. And if you’re having a bad day, don’t beat yourself up if you don’t think you can face it. Do remember though that being active during and after cancer treatment is not only safe, it can bring you lots of benefits. Here are just some of the ways physical activity can help you.

    • Being active actually helps you feel less tired (fatigued).
    • You’re less likely to feel anxious or become depressed.
    • Your bones, muscles and heart will be stronger.
    • It will be easier for you to maintain a healthy weight.
    • You may feel happier and more able to cope with life.
    • You may reduce the chance of your cancer returning.

    Always check with your oncologist though before you start any physical activity. Some types of exercise, for example weight lifting, might not be suitable for you if you have or have had cancer that affects your bones.

    Experts recommend that you follow the same physical activity advice as the general population, as much as you’re able to. This means that you aim to do 150 minutes of moderate physical activity each week. Moderate means any activity which gets you a little warm and a bit out of breath. This may sound like a tough task but you can do this over a week in bouts of 10 minutes or more.

    Try to do something you enjoy and exercise at your own pace, taking breaks when you feel you need them. You could try gardening, walking, swimming, playing a sport or joining a gym. And try to be more active in your daily activities too. If you can, take the stairs instead of the lift or perhaps get off the bus a few stops early and walk.

    For some people, the effects of cancer or other medical conditions may mean they have to take extra care about being active. You may find it best to have someone with you when you exercise. Speak to your doctor or nurse for advice and support about being active during and after cancer.

  • Maintaining a healthy weight Maintaining a healthy weight

    If you have cancer you may lose weight. This could be from to the effects of the cancer on your body, losing your appetite or side-effects from your treatment. Eating a healthy, balanced diet will help you maintain your weight and improve the way you feel. Ask your doctor about the best way to keep your weight up.

    You may also gain weight if you have cancer. You might not expect this but it can happen for a number of reasons. You may find that you feel more tired and less physically active or you turn to your favourite comfort food when you’re anxious. Also, some cancer treatments, including steroids, can cause weight gain. And over half of all adults in the UK are overweight so it’s not unusual if you have cancer and you’re overweight too.

    There are several ways of working out whether you’re a healthy weight. One of the most commonly used is body mass index (BMI), which takes into account your weight and height. To work out your BMI, use our BMI calculator. Another way is to look at your body shape and waist circumference. See our information about healthy weight for adults for more information.

    Being overweight can harm your general health, so it’s a good idea to keep an eye on your weight. This is true not just when you have cancer, but throughout your life. As well as improving your general health, keeping to a healthy weight can help improve your energy levels, general mood and self-esteem. If you’re having treatment for cancer, you might find it hard to think about trying to lose excess weight as well. But after your treatment has finished, you may feel ready to make some changes to lose weight safely.

    If you’re finding it difficult to manage your weight because of the side-effects of your treatment, speak to your doctor, nurse or dietitian. They can help you with practical advice and support.

  • Getting enough sleep Getting enough sleep

    Many people who are affected by cancer find it difficult to get to sleep or stay asleep. This is often caused by illness, pain, the medicine you’re taking, being in hospital or anxiety. Fortunately there are a number of things you can do to help you get a good night’s sleep.

    • Try to get into a daily routine by going to bed at the same time each night and getting up at the same time each morning.
    • Take a warm bath, have a milky drink, read or listen to soothing music to create a relaxed mood before going to bed.
    • Don't have drinks that contain caffeine or alcohol six hours before going to bed.
    • Take regular exercise, but don't do strenuous activity immediately before going to bed as this may disturb your sleep.
    • Don't take naps during the day.
    • Before you go to bed, write down any worries to deal with the next day, This may help to clear them from your mind and prevent them resurfacing in the early hours.
    • Don't eat heavy or rich meals, especially within a few hours before going to bed.
    • If you can't sleep, get up and read until you feel sleepy or do something you find relaxing.
    • Make sure your room isn't too hot or cold, or too noisy. Have a comfortable, supportive mattress on your bed. Wear ear plugs or an eye mask if necessary.

    Different people need different amounts of sleep – there’s no magic number. But in general, most adults need about eight hours sleep. If you think the medicines you’re taking are affecting your sleep, speak to your doctor about it. They might be able to suggest things that can help, such as changing the time that you take your medicines.

  • How healthy are you?

    Find out how healthy you are with a Bupa health assessment, and receive a personalised lifestyle action plan and health goals for a healthier, happier you.

  • Sun care Sun care

    Some sun exposure within safe levels can be beneficial because your skin uses it to produce vitamin D. Vitamin D is important for bone health. However, too much sun is harmful and can damage your skin, putting you at risk of skin cancer.

    Everyone needs to protect their skin from sun exposure at some times, no matter what colour it is. Even on a cool day or when there are clouds in the sky, the sun can still damage your skin.

    If you’re having treatment for cancer you may need to be extra careful about going out in the sun. Some cancer treatments can make your skin more sensitive to damage from the sun. This sensitivity can continue for some months after your treatment finishes. Ask your doctor whether your treatment might affect you in this way.

    Follow these top sun care tips to make sure you’re protecting your skin in the sun.

    • Spend time in the shade, especially when the sun’s rays are at their strongest in the middle of the day.
    • Use a broad spectrum sunscreen that has an SPF of 30 or higher.
    • Cover up by wearing long-sleeved tops, trousers and wraparound sunglasses.
    • Don’t use sunbeds.
  • Stopping smoking Stopping smoking

    If you’re a smoker and you have cancer, giving up will really improve your health. You’ll get all the health improvements that any ex-smoker gets plus some extra benefits linked to your cancer. By giving up smoking you’ll reduce your risk of heart and lung disease and you’ll be less likely to get another cancer. And if you have cancer, quitting smoking will help you respond better to treatment and reduce the side-effects. It will also help your wound to heal better if you need surgery.

    Giving up smoking can be difficult, especially when you have the stress of a diagnosis of cancer to deal with. You may feel that smoking helps you relax or reduces stress. Even so, many people with cancer do decide to quit. If you want to stop smoking there are many ways to do it, and plenty of support available.

    Stopping smoking involves changing your lifestyle, habits and getting rid of an addiction you may have had for years. Try to remember the following.

    • Make a list of reasons why you want to stop.
    • Set a date for quitting and stick to it.
    • Tell your friends and family that you’re stopping smoking, and get their help and support.
    • Stay positive and remind yourself of what you have achieved when the going gets tough.
    • Get support and treatment from your NHS stop smoking service.

    Take the first step and speak to your nurse for information and advice about giving up smoking.

  • Getting help and support Getting help and support

    Whether you’re the one coping with cancer or you’re supporting somebody with cancer, looking after yourself is important. There are support groups where you can meet people who may have similar experiences to you. Specialist cancer doctors and nurses are experts in providing the care and support you need, speak to them for more information.

  • Resources Resources

    Further information


    • Physical activity, exercise and cancer. Cancer Research UK., reviewed 20 August 2014
    • American College of Sports Medicine roundtable on exercise guidelines for cancer survivors. Consensus statement. American College of Sports Medicine., published 2010
    • Are there exercise guidelines for cancer patients? Cancer Research UK., reviewed 20 September 2013
    • How to make positive lifestyle changes while living with cancer. Cancer.Net., accessed 26 November 2014
    • UV, the sun and skin cancer. Cancer Research UK., reviewed 17 February 2014
    • Chemotherapy side effects. Cancer Research UK., reviewed 16 April 2013
    • Living with and after cancer – physical activity. Macmillan Cancer Support., accessed 13 August 2014
    • Nutrition in cancer care. National Cancer Institute at the National Institutes of Health., published 25 June 2014
    • Sleep disorders. National Cancer Institute at the National Institutes of Health., published 24 April 2014
    • How to protect your skin from sunlight. National Cancer Institute at the National Institutes of Health., published 16 September 2011
    • Smoking in cancer care. National Cancer Institute at the National Institutes of Health., published 20 June 2014
    • Rock CL, Doyle C, Demark-Wahnefried W, et al. Nutrition and physical activity guidelines for cancer survivors. CA Cancer J Clin 2012; 62(4):242–74
    • Side-effects of corticosteroids. Joint Formulary Committee. British National Formulary. June 2014. BMJ Group and Pharmaceutical Press.
    • Obesity: Guidance on the prevention, identification, assessment and management of overweight and obesity in adults and children. National Institute of Health and Care Excellence, 2006 (modified 2014).
    • Longmore M, Wilkinson I, Baldwin A et al. Oxford Handbook of Clinical Medicine. 9th Ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press; 2014
    • Sleeping well. Royal College of Psychiatrists., published July 2014
    • How to cope with sleep problems. Mind., accessed 21 August 2014
    • Difficulty sleeping. Macmillan Cancer Support., reviewed 1 April 2012
    • Consensus Vitamin D position statement, 2010. British Association of Dermatologists, Cancer Research UK, Diabetes UK, the Multiple Sclerosis Society, the National Heart Forum, the National Osteoporosis Society and the Primary Care Dermatology Society.
    • Skin changes with chemotherapy. Canadian Cancer Society., accessed 21 August 2014
    • Sunbeds. British Association of Dermatologists., accessed 21 August 2014
    • Smokefree., accessed 21 August 2014
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