20 Ways to Boost Your Body, Mind and Spirit

By Jacqueline Stenson

With your body going through so much right now, it's easy to forget to nurture your soul. But taking care of your psychological health is a critical part of coping with chemotherapy. Finding ways to reduce stress, keep your spirits up and enjoy life—even at this challenging time—can help ward off depression and anxiety and ease pain, says Alyson Moadel, PhD, director of the psychosocial oncology program at the Montefiore Einstein Center for Cancer Care in New York City.

Use these tips from experts and patients to thrive during treatment:

1. Accept help.
Your body needs rest during chemo, so this isn't the time to tackle everything solo. Don't hesitate to ask family and friends for assistance, because "it's generous to let people help you," says Wendy Baer, MD, director of psychiatric oncology at Emory University's Winship Cancer Institute in Atlanta. "People feel good about themselves when they help others."

Make a list of tasks you need help with, such as caring for a child, preparing meals, doing laundry and driving to medical appointments. Consider posting your needs on Lotsa Helping Hands. Friends and family can sign up to help you on specific dates.

2. Join a support group.
It can be comforting to talk with others who are going through—or have already completed—treatment. In addition to venting your fears and frustrations, you may glean some words of wisdom. "I recommend that patients talk to someone who's already been through chemo," says Dr. Moadel. "That way, they can see there's light at the end of the tunnel." Research, including a decade-long breast cancer study published in Cancer, has shown that participating in support groups can boost your quality of life.

3. Call friends.
Not everyone likes to share their personal experiences with a group. If that's you, remember that it's not healthy to keep your worries bottled up. So put your own private support team on speed dial.

4. Set priorities.
You may not be able to keep up with all your usual commitments, so prioritize the most important ones. Keep in mind, cancer can change what tops the list. You may decide, for instance, to change jobs to reduce your stress level or take more vacations. "I live more now," says Alyssa Phillips, a cervical cancer survivor. "Thinking you might die gives you permission to do all the things you thought you might do someday right now. I've traveled the world." (If you plan to travel during treatment, be sure to arrange for chemo at your destination.) One of  Phillips' top priorities is spending time with her husband, who was by her side throughout her treatment.

5. Consider changing your work schedule.
Share your treatment schedule with your boss. If fatigue or other symptoms are interfering with your ability to work, ask about taking time off or working part-time from home. Judith Macon worked out a treatment schedule that minimized her time away from work. She was receiving chemo every three weeks, and her "bad days" were usually the third and fourth days after each infusion. "I tried to plan my sessions so my bad days fell on Saturdays and Sundays," she says. "My boss was very supportive and allowed me to leave work early when I was extremely tired."

6. Don't beat yourself up if you can't do everything.
Plan as best you can, but be prepared to cancel—or delay—a scheduled activity if you aren't feeling up to it. Remember, your top priority is to get well.

7. Visualize getting better.
Imagine your cancer cells disappearing and your body growing healthier and stronger. This optimistic outlook can ease stress and promote relaxation, according to the American Cancer Society (ACS). And focusing on your treatment goal can help keep you going when you have a bad day.

8. Keep a journal.
Write down anything that makes you happy—a joke, a random act of kindness, a cute thing your child said. When you're feeling down, turn to your journal for a quick mood boost.

9. Read inspirational books.
"I read a lot of motivational books to lift my spirits," says Rebecca Cagle, a breast cancer survivor. One of her favorites is Chicken Soup for the Cancer Survivor's Soul. "I learned there's always hope, no matter how bad the chemo makes you feel," she says. "A day will come when the treatment will be finished, and you can get on with your life." You might find inspiration from spiritual books, poetry collections or other readings.

10. Laugh every day.
It really is good medicine. Laughter can help ill people boost their mood, ease stress and anxiety, and improve their quality of life, according to a review published in Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine. So go to a comedy show, watch a funny movie or horse around in the backyard with the kids—and laugh!

11. Crank up your favorite tunes.
"Whenever I was feeling down, stuck or scared, I'd turn on some music and dance," says Phillips. "It instantly made me smile. Plus, it was empowering to know I could pull myself out of a funk."

12. Make time for exercise.
Working out is essential, since it can help fight fatigue, nausea, pain and depression—and improve your quality of life. Phillips, who had run a half marathon before her diagnosis, continued to run during chemo, although she had to cut back on the mileage and sometimes took a power walk instead. "Exercise made me feel strong," she says. Find out if your cancer center has a trainer or fitness pro on staff.

13. Make fitness fun.
Exercise doesn't have to be a chore. Take a ballroom dance class, try Pilates or go for a hike or bike ride outside. The fresh air will do you good! And get a friend to join you. It will make your workouts more fun—and keep them on track.

14. Check out wigs, scarves, hats or turbans.
If losing your hair will upset you, consider a beautiful head covering. "A change in your appearance can lead to stress and anxiety," says Susan Brown, RN, director of health education at Susan G. Komen for the Cure in Dallas. "If you're thinking about getting a wig, consider doing it before your hair falls out so it can be matched to your color and style."

15. Indulge in a makeover.
If treatments are making you unhappy with your appearance, consider getting a makeover at a local cosmetics counter (some may be free). You also can get free skin care, makeup and hair-styling tips online through the Look Good…Feel Better program.

16. Book a spa treatment.
Enjoy a pedicure, seaweed wrap, massage or other pampering service. Some massages are available for cancer patients free of charge. Check out Angie's Spa.

17. Try something new.
At the Montefiore Einstein Center for Cancer Care in New York City, patients are encouraged to try a range of activities, including crocheting, scrapbooking, tai chi, Reiki and even a drum circle. "They're not going to wait until their treatment is over to live their lives," says Dr. Moadel. Always wanted to take a cake-decorating workshop? Do it now.

18. Relax.
Give yourself permission to be a couch potato sometimes. "Take breaks and rest when you feel tired and weak," says Brown, of Komen for the Cure. "Be patient with yourself as you cope."

19. Give yourself permission to feel sad, angry—or both.
Expect a bad day every now and then. "Don't force yourself to be upbeat all the time," says Dr. Baer. But if you're always depressed or anxious, seek professional help immediately.

20. Celebrate your successes.
At the end of each chemo cycle, treat yourself to something special—perhaps a meal from a favorite restaurant, a new pair of shoes or even a long soak in the tub. You deserve it!

Published September 2011

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