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Life after cancer treatment

After finishing cancer treatment, there are steps you can take to help your body recover and heal.

After dealing with cancer, you may feel your life is starting over in some ways. Your doctor says you're free of the disease, and it's a time you'll likely want to celebrate in your own way.

As you move forward, you can also take steps to help your body and mind recover, start to reclaim your life, and be as healthy as you can be.

Get back to being well

Healthy habits can have immediate effects on your well-being. And they can provide long-term benefits as well.

We know that diet and exercise are both healthy lifestyle traits that help prevent people from getting (and dying from) cancer. Recent research has even suggested that staying active might lower your risk of cancer recurrence. And while there is no guarantee that your cancer won't recur, it's still wise to follow the American Cancer Society's (ACS) prevention guidelines on nutrition and physical activity.

These guidelines include avoiding tobacco, maintaining a healthy weight, eating more fruits and vegetables, and exercising a minimum of 150 minutes throughout the week. You'll be helping to protect yourself against other cancers as well as chronic health problems like heart disease and diabetes.

Here are some specific diet and exercise tips:

Eat a variety of healthy foods. Proper nutrition can help you heal, regain energy and strength, and feel better overall. A dietitian can help you plan a balanced diet that takes into account your nutritional needs. For example, if you had trouble eating during treatment, you may lack certain nutrients or you may have lost weight.

While some people will need to gain weight, others struggle with extra pounds as a result of treatment. Ask your healthcare team what your ideal weight is and how to achieve it.

What should you eat? In general, the ACS recommends choosing from a variety of healthy foods, including:

  • At least 2½ cups of fruits and vegetables each day.
  • Whole grains—choose them instead of refined grains.
  • Limited amounts of processed and red meats.

Work physical activity into your life. Physical activity reduces the stress and fatigue that often follows cancer treatment, according to the National Cancer Institute (NCI).

Moderate activities, such as brisk walking, also may help reduce pain, nausea and depression. Your doctor may want you to start slowly. Do what you can do for now, since any activity is better than none. Even small activities like stretching or moving your arms or legs while in bed can be a start, notes the NCI.

Stay in touch with your health team

It's important to get the follow-up care and tests your doctor recommends. Also, be sure to talk with your doctor or nurse about any lingering treatment side effects or other problems you're having so that you can learn how best to manage them.

Tend to your emotional health

As you recover from cancer, many feelings may arise, including some you may have set aside during treatment, such as stress, anger or loneliness, according to the NCI.

One of the most common emotional challenges is living with fear and anxiety over the possibility that the cancer may return. The fear may be greater around the time of follow-up appointments or the anniversary of a diagnosis.

It might help you to focus on aspects of your health you can control, such as eating better, exercising and—if you smoke—getting help to quit. You also may feel better after sharing fears and emotions with family, friends, a support group or a counselor.

Looking forward

Cancer changes things, and what you considered normal before your diagnosis may be different today. Many people look at life differently and find that it takes on new meaning. Some people even say their cancer gave them a wake-up call and a second chance to make their life what they want it to be. You might try writing down your thoughts about what gives meaning to your life now.

reviewed 9/3/2019

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