Through the intensity of a cancer diagnosis, surgery and treatment, life goes on—but with a different rhythm and new challenges. To give your treatments the best chance to work, you have to take care of yourself. Here are a few insider tips:
Make the most of meals
Eating well during cancer therapy isn't easy. Some days you may feel queasy—other times you may be too tired to cook. But it's important to take in healthy calories to maintain your weight, enough protein to speed healing of damaged tissues, and enough nutrients to fight off infections. To make this task easier:
Amp energy with gentle moves
Your body's been through a lot, and you're probably bushed. But too much inactivity can make you feel lethargic, sore and stiff. So even during those early days of treatment, try to keep moving with gentle stretches and short walks. Be in motion at least part of every day.
Studies have shown that exercise provides a lot of great health perks—both during and after treatment. A study of women who had radiation, for example, showed that aerobic activity helped maintain adequate levels of red blood cells. Another found that exercise reduced chemo-related nausea. Physical activity also has been shown to restore flexibility and strength in the affected arm and shoulder, counter swelling due to node surgery, reduce fatigue and brighten moods.
Check with your doctor about when to begin an exercise program and how much to do, then find the level of activity that feels comfortable. Once you're healed, regular exercise will help you stay fit and strong.
Have fun to beat back stress
You may feel like managing this illness is taking over your life. You also may be concerned about how it's affecting your family, and worried about your future. That stress can trigger sleep disturbances, fatigue, headaches and anxiety—all of which pile on more stress.
Learning about your disease and its treatment will give you a greater sense of control. Try to be positive, but also accept that there are some things you'll just have to get through, and that there will be times when you won't have the energy to be "superwoman."
Stress-reducing strategies can help. Find time for activities you enjoy, such as watching comedies (laughter's good!) or listening to music. Try deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation or visualization. Consider learning biofeedback, which helps you monitor body functions (breathing, heart rate, blood pressure) and then alter them through relaxation or imagery.
Physical therapy, including evaluation before and after surgery, is a covered service for breast cancer patients. Therapeutic massage can melt away tension and reduce post-mastectomy pain and swelling. Yoga also can be useful. It emphasizes gentle stretching, breathing and relaxation, and it can help you reduce stress by focusing on positive, healing thoughts.
Stay connected to build relationships
When your emotions are in turmoil, it can be an enormous relief to talk to someone about what you're going through. Making that connection—whether with a friend, spiritual counselor or support group—can really improve your quality of life.
You can find support groups at your hospital or through advocacy organizations. Some of these, such as the American Cancer Society and other resources, have programs pairing women with cancer survivors who offer valuable support.
From time to time, take a few minutes to look forward to your life after cancer. For some people, that may simply mean a return to normalcy. For others, it may mean a deeper, fuller life, with important, new relationships forged during your journey.
Work toward enjoying intimate moments again
Changes in your body due to surgery and follow-up treatment may affect your enjoyment of sexual intimacy. Emotionally, you may be worried about how your partner will react to the "new" you, especially if you had a mastectomy without reconstruction or lost your hair for a while. Physically, you may also be dealing with fatigue, nausea and other romance killers.
Be open with your partner about your anxieties. Remedies are available for many treatment-induced symptoms: You could try a water-based lubricant, for example, if you're struggling with vaginal dryness.
Finally, explore ways to be intimate that don't involve intercourse. And don't feel guilty if you just don't feel like having sex at certain points in your treatment.