5 Ways to Care for Yourself During Chemotherapy

By Health Monitor Staff
Reviewed by Lillie Shockney, RN, BS, MAS; Theodore Tsangaris, MD; and Pat Whitworth, MD, FACS

Through the intensity of a cancer diagnosis, chemotherapy and other 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:

Step 1: 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:

  • Adapt to your body’s rhythms—eat when you have an appetite, even if it isn’t a typical “mealtime.”
  • Enjoy smaller, more frequent meals.
  • Choose foods that are packed with protein and other healthy nutrients when you can eat. Or try a commercial protein drink. Avoid concentrated sweets; fruits are a great alternative.
  • Drink plenty of fluids, especially on days when you don’t feel like eating.
  • Don’t worry if you can’t eat much for one day. Just keep track, and let your doctor know if your appetite doesn’t improve within a couple of days.
  • Be wary of supplements—some may interfere with your treatment. Check with your doctor before taking any. 

Step 2: 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, have programs pairing women with cancer survivors.

Take time to look forward to your life after cancer. For some, that may mean a return to normalcy. For others, it may mean a fuller life, with new relationships forged during your journey.

Step 3: Amp energy with gentle moves
Even if treatment has you feeling bushed, too much inactivity can make you feel more lethargic, sore and stiff. So 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. Women who have radiation treatment, for example, showed that aerobic activity helped them maintain adequate levels of red blood cells. And researchers found that exercise reduced chemo-related nausea. Activity also has been shown to counter swelling due to node surgery 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.

Step 4: Have fun to beat back 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.

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 very useful. It emphasizes gentle stretching, breathing and relaxation, and it can help you reduce stress by focusing on positive, healing thoughts.

Step 5: 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 times.

Published March 2014

  Thriving During Chemo

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Keep Healthy During Chemo
20 Ways to Thrive During Chemo
Preparing for the Completion of Chemo
Working Through Chemo

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