Cancer and wellbeing

Having cancer can undermine your mental and physical wellbeing. It is good to ensure you get enough sleep and exercise and have a varied diet at all stages of your illness. It is also important that you take care of your psychological wellbeing.

Cancer also often affects your self-image and self-esteem. Possible changes in physical appearance and depleted health can be frightening. But in terms of your own wellbeing and recovery it is important to try to take as good care of yourself as possible.

Cancer, feelings and mental health

It is important to discuss your wellbeing during treatment with your doctor or the nursing staff treating you.

Ways to improve your state of mind:

  • Movement and exercise – fresh outdoor air helps improve the body and mind.
  • Look after your appearance.
  • Celebrate your successes and achievements – reward yourself.
  • A good frame of mind comes about from doing nice things for yourself.
  • Write down a list of pleasant things to read when days are bad.
  • Don’t hanker for the past but rather remember the good times.
  • Your life attitude depends on you. It’s up to you whether you focus on and remember things in a positive or negative light.

Cancer and a healthy diet

Cancer affects a person’s diet and eating habits in many ways. The illness can in itself cause weight loss, lack of appetite or other problems associated with eating.

Surgical treatment may affect swallowing or the functioning of the digestive tract. Radiotherapy and chemotherapy can cause nausea, diarrhoea, loss of appetite and changes to one’s sense of taste and smell.

Mood swings or depression linked to one’s illness may also affect appetite, and so one’s food intake often decreases resulting in weight loss. Some cancer patients may even suffer from malnutrition, which can impede recovery and endurance.

For some cancer patients undergoing treatment the situation may be the complete opposite. Hormone or cortisone medication may make one’s appetite and weight increase. Treatment doesn’t cause weight loss, but you can look after your weight by having regular meals, choosing to eat healthy food, and taking more exercise according to your stamina.

It is important that cancer patients ensure that they have a varied diet and adequate fluid intake. Even though your appetite is sometimes bad, it is important to get sufficient energy and nutrients from your daily meals. Cereals, green vegetables, pulses and foods with high levels of iron, such as spinach and cabbage help one maintaining energy levels. The same goes for eating small meals frequently. You can snack on ready-made food supplements, which contain abundant nutrients in small amounts. It’s good to discuss diet with a doctor, nurse or dietician.

The Association of Cancer Patients in Finland has published handbooks for cancer patients:

Survivors’ guidebook (in Finnish)

Cancer patient’s guide to nutrition (in Finnish)

Cancer and exercise

When you have cancer, exercise is important in terms of your wellbeing and recovery. Following treatment, rehabilitation begins the better and quicker you start exercising.

Physical activity and light exercise increase muscle strength and give you energy. You shouldn’t overstrain your body with heavy exercise, as the illness and treatment place a burden on you physically.

Following treatment, it is important to start getting exercise, for instance by taking non-strenuous walks. It’s also good to do such things as household chores and shopping or to cycle to work.

You quickly notice the beneficial effects of exercise. Your mood starts to improve because exercise increases endorphin levels, particularly in the brain. Endorphins alleviate pain and enhance feelings of wellbeing.

Cancer and fatigue

Many people with cancer experience extreme tiredness and exhaustion that doesn’t improve with normal rest. They may find it difficult to remember and concentrate on things. Ordinary daily routines can seem overwhelming.

Exhaustion is not only an effect of cancer but of many other illnesses. Chronic fatigue or treatment fatigue is a symptom that has many causes, and it is worth discussing the problem with your healthcare professional. If necessary, symptoms of fatigue can be treated with drugs.

The reasons for fatigue during illness and treatment are not entirely clear. Fatigue may be acute or chronic. Acute or short-term fatigue lasts only for a few weeks but chronic fatigue saps your energy for a long period and impacts on the whole body. Fatigue may also have been a symptom of your condition prior to diagnosis.

The background factors of fatigue may be to do with cancer treatment (treatment fatigue) or other medication, anaemia, weight loss and poor appetite, changes in metabolism, decreased hormone function, sleep disorders, reduced exercise, stress, shortness of breath, paid and possible infection as well as uncertainty and fear.

Chronic fatigue in someone with cancer is the sort of symptom that each person experiences individually. Treatment methods depend on the reasons for the fatigue.

You should see your doctor

  • if your fatigue becomes extremely intense,
  • if rest and being outdoors don’t relieve fatigue,
  • if you are unable to attend to daily food intake and personal hygiene or
  • if your fatigue is unremitting.

Although there is no single medical treatment for fatigue, it can always be alleviated.

You can relieve fatigue yourself. It is good to recognise your own resources. Short power naps are sufficient to maintain energy levels. You can rest several times a day, but only for short spells so that your natural daily rhythm is not disturbed. Undisturbed night sleep is important. If insomnia is a problem, you should talk about it with your doctor.

 

Sources

Joensuu, Heikki; Jyrkkiö, Sirkku; Kellokumpu-Lehtinen, Pirkko-Liisa; Kouri, Mauri; Roberts, Peter J. & Teppo, Lyly (toim.) (2013) Syöpätaudit. Helsinki: Kustannus Oy Duodecim.

Suomen Syöpäpotilaat ry. Kun mitään en jaksa, Fatigue eli hoitoväsymys. Helsinki, 2015.

Suomen Syöpäpotilaat ry. Syöpäpotilaan ravitsemusopas. Helsinki, 2014.

Suomen Syöpäpotilaat ry. Selviytyjän matkaopas. Helsinki, 2014.