What I can do to help myself

There are practical ways to help yourself after cancer treatment that can have a positive impact on your recovery and how you feel.

Not smoking

If you're a smoker, the Cancer Society strongly recommends you quit. There is no safe level of tobacco use. Many smokers find quitting difficult. Don't be discouraged if it takes several attempts before you are able to quit successfully. Talk to your doctor or call the Quitline on 0800 778 778.

Regular exercise

If you exercised regularly before your cancer diagnosis, you may wonder when you can start again. Even a small amount of regular activity such as walking can be beneficial to both your physical and mental wellbeing. Be sure to build up your level of activity slowly and balance this with periods of rest. You may wish to start by taking regular walks then build up and include other types of exercise as you feel stronger. Discuss with your doctor what exercise is best for you. There is increasing evidence that keeping fit and taking part in regular exercise is good for you after cancer treatment.

Contact your local Cancer Society about exercise programmes in your area or talk to your doctor about "Green Prescriptions".

Protecting yourself from the sun

Between September and April, especially between the hours of 10am-4pm when UV radiation levels are very high, try to protect yourself by following this advice:

Slip on some sun protective clothing, such as a shirt with a collar and long sleeves, and trousers or long-legged shorts, and into shade whenever possible.

Slop on SPF30+ sunscreen 15 minutes before you go outdoors and every two hours afterwards. (Note: sunscreen should never be your only or main method of sun protection.)

Slap on a hat that protects your face, head, neck and ears.

Wrap on some sunglasses: make sure they meet the Australian/New Zealand Standard.

Avoid sunbeds.

Using sunbeds significantly increases your risk of melanoma. People with a history of skin cancer, sun damage or who are taking medicines that affect photosensitivity should use sun protection all year round. Sun protection should also be used throughout the year when at high altitudes or near highly reflective surfaces, such as snow or water.

Eating a healthy and varied diet

Your body needs a variety of nutrients from the food you eat, so a balanced diet is essential. The World Cancer Research Fund's diet and lifestyle recommendations (which are aimed at people with and without cancer) are summarised below. So when your appetite is good and your weight is normal, the following simple ideas can help you eat well.

  • Maintain your weight within the normal BMI (Body Mass Index) range. (NZ Online calculator)
  • Reduce your intake of high-calorie foods and avoid sugary drinks.
  • Eat at least five portions of fruit/vegetables every day.
  • Eat a portion of pulses or wholegrain foods with every meal.
  • Reduce your intake of red meat to no more than 500g (18oz) a week and eat minimal amounts of processed meats.
  • Limit your alcohol intake to two drinks a day for men or one drink a day for women and have some alcohol-free days.
  • Lower your salt intake. This can be helped by reducing the amount of salty and processed foods you eat.
  • Do not use dietary supplements for the prevention of cancer.

Some common questions answered

Do I need to take vitamin and mineral supplements?

By eating a healthy diet you will get a wide variety of vitamins and minerals from your food. At certain times, if you're not eating well, you may need to take a one-a-day multivitamin tablet.

At present, there is no evidence that taking extra vitamins as supplements will reduce the chance of cancer recurring (returning). Very high doses, well above the recommended daily intake, may be harmful and have unpleasant side effects (for example, headaches and skin discoloration).

Never take large doses of vitamins or minerals without first speaking to your doctor.

Should I buy organic fruit and vegetables?

Organic is the term given to food grown in a way to avoid the use of chemicals as much as possible. Organic foods are likely to be a lot lower in pesticide residues than in conventionally produced food although organically produced food will not necessarily be residue free. Organic foods may be more expensive.

Organic fruit and vegetables contain the same nutrients, vitamins and minerals as fruit and vegetables grown in the conventional way.

Should I be eating soya foods?

Some plant foods, particularly soya, contain small amounts of phyto-oestrogens. Larger amounts of phyto-oestrogens are also present in supplements, such as those made from red clover. These substances are known to act like very mild oestrogens in the body. It is unclear what action such substances may have on patients who have breast cancer. Small quantities in food are unlikely to have a harmful effect but always check with your doctor or dietitian before taking more concentrated supplements.

Is there any special diet I should follow?

Some people have claimed to cure or control cancer using an alternative diet and people are often confused as to whether or not they should follow one of these.

Should I be on one of these diets?

There have been few clinical trials or research studies in this area. To date there is no scientific evidence to support claims made by alternative diets.

What are the problems with them?

Many people experience eating difficulties or lose weight as a result of their cancer or their treatment. These diets are low in energy (calories) and protein and tend to be bulky and, therefore, very filling. They can cause weight loss and malnutrition in people who have problems eating.

Making these meals may be time-consuming and expensive.

Many alternative diets recommend very large doses of vitamins and mineral supplements.

Should I eat dairy products?

A number of complementary and alternative diets recommend that you don't eat dairy products, as it is suggested that these may promote cancer growth. These recommendations are based on individual case studies rather than clinical trials and have no scientific evidence to support them. Therefore, it isn't necessary to avoid these foods. Dairy products can be a good source of vitamins and minerals, particularly calcium. If you are concerned about your fat intake, choose low fat products.

Source: Taken from http://www.royalmarsden.nhs.uk/cancerinformation/living/eating-well/pages/good-appetite-healthyweight.aspx (11 July 2012).

Does sugar feed cancer?

No. Sugar intake has not been shown to directly increase risk or progression of cancer. However, sugars (including honey, raw sugar and brown sugar) and drinks containing sugar (soft drinks and fruit drinks) can add a large number of calories to your diet and so can promote weight gain. Being overweight or obese increases the risk of several cancers so it is important to maintain a healthy weight by eating a balanced diet and being physically active.

Most foods and beverages that are high in sugar do not contribute many vitamins and minerals to your diet and can often be replaced by more nutritious food choices.

Source: World Cancer Research Fund booklet: Eating Well and Being Active following Cancer Treatment (World Cancer Research Fund 2011).

Learn how to relax

Some people find relaxation or meditation helps them to feel better. Many people have already developed their own methods of dealing with anxiety and stress and these can be applied just as successfully to coping with the diagnosis of cancer. Others decide to learn to relax or meditate when they are diagnosed with cancer. There are many different methods of relaxation techniques, such as controlled breathing exercises, yoga, meditation and guided imagery.

Many relaxation exercises are based on the control of breathing or the tensing and relaxation of muscles. Here is a simple technique that you can try at home. Lie, stand or sit with your feet apart. Rest your hands loosely in your lap.

  1. Close your eyes and slow yourself down for a few minutes, by breathing a little more deeply and slowly than usual.
  2. Be conscious of the tension in your whole body, through your toes, feet, calves, thighs, abdomen, chest, back, fingers, arms, shoulders, neck, head, scalp and face.
  3. Now, each time you breathe out, allow some of the tension to go out of these areas. Let all your muscles slowly relax and enjoy the feeling of peace and calm that comes from total relaxation.
  4. Sit quietly for a while and help your mind relax by thinking about the pleasant experience of complete relaxation.
  5. Open your eyes and stretch slowly, return to your day.

Allow yourself a regular period of relaxation. Ten to 15 minutes, twice a day, may be enough.

The hospital social worker, doctor or Cancer Society will know whether the hospital runs any relaxation programmes, or may be able to advise you on local community programmes.

Other relaxation techniques:

  • relaxation therapy/meditation
  • yoga
  • positive imagery
  • art
  • aromatherapy/massage
  • Pilates
  • listening to favourite music
  • watching comedy or listening to things that make you laugh.

“When it was painful I transported myself to the fresh fruit market at home. I remembered songs that have no words that reminded me of home, like streams and natural sounds. I imagined myself at moments throughout my lifetime — special places on the beach, certain things we did as children. I took myself there." Silei

Keeping a record of your medical information

As time passes it can be difficult to recall all the details about your diagnosis and treatment. Keeping all the information you have about your diagnosis and treatment in one place is a good idea. Some people keep all their medical information (letters from the hospital, pathology/histology reports) in a folder or journal. The information can be useful to doctors who care for you in the future. 

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