Living with and beyond cancer

Lifestyle choices

After having cancer it is common for people to change aspects of their lifestyle. Some people found their outlook on life had changed leading them to alter how they spent their time (see ‘Changed attitudes or personal growth’). Others decided to eat healthier food, take more exercise or quit smoking.
Many felt that eating a healthier diet might help prevent the cancer from returning or avoid other health problems. Common dietary changes were: cutting down red meat, coffee, tea, alcohol, sugar, salt, or dairy products, and consuming more fruit, vegetables, water, wholemeal or organic food. Some people took dietary supplements.
A commonly held belief is that omitting certain foods, or taking certain food supplements or other herbal medicines, can help cure cancer or prevent it coming back. Although research shows that eating a healthy diet can reduce the risk of developing certain types of cancer, there is currently no evidence that following any particular diet, or cutting out key elements of a normal diet can treat cancer or prevent it recurring. Drinking alcohol increases the risk of developing some types of cancer, but consuming small amounts can reduce the risk of heart disease. Although dietary supplements may benefit people who cannot absorb all the nutrients they need from food because of their cancer treatment, or those with osteoporosis, evidence shows that taking supplements does not reduce the risk of developing cancer; in fact high doses of certain supplements may increase the risk in some people.
Dietary changes were sometimes started during cancer treatment in the hope that they might help cure the cancer or help the body to cope with treatment. Some people we spoke to were having treatment for chronic or recurrent disease several years after diagnosis and were following dietary approaches that they had read might help cancer, such as drinking green tea. Some people with chronic lymphocytic leukaemia were trying to boost their red blood cell count through diet. A woman with ovarian cancer was following a diet based on a theory that people should eat according to their blood group.
Some people pinned their hopes on supplements or herbal remedies when there was no more conventional treatment available to them that might cure their advanced cancer. A woman with ovarian cancer believed that some of the products she was using must be working because she was still surviving seven years on.
Some people who changed their diet during treatment had reverted to their normal diet once in remission; others continued some of the changes because they became aware of the effects that certain foodstuffs had on their body. One woman gave up dairy foods and caffeine during lymphoma treatment and still avoids coffee because it gives her palpitations.
Some people changed their diet to lose weight. Marie ate more fish, fruit and vegetables and reduced her portion sizes; she cured her diabetes that had probably been caused by the steroids she took with chemotherapy for her leukaemia. Some people had good intentions to eat more healthily and lose weight but failed to maintain these over time. A man who had lymphoma and diabetes couldn’t lose weight from his abdomen because it was where he injected his insulin.
Dietary changes for weight loss were often accompanied by an increase in walking, swimming, other sports or using a gym. A man who’d had testicular cancer took up Tai Chi and martial arts. A woman who’d had ovarian cancer joined a slimming club and began using a gym and eating a low fat diet after her husband suggested she was ‘getting a bit too large’. Evidence shows that being physically active has a range of health benefits including helping recovery from cancer treatment; it may also reduce the chance of certain cancers progressing or coming back.
Smoking is associated with an increased risk of several types of cancer and other health problems. Cutting down or giving up smoking after having cancer may reduce the chances of it coming back, and this was another lifestyle change people made. Some did so on their doctor’s advice, others made the choice themselves. Some said they gave up immediately after being diagnosed with cancer. One man said he quit to reward his doctor for successfully treating his lung cancer. A woman said she hadn’t made a conscious decision to quit but just hadn’t fancied smoking during radiotherapy and when she had a cigarette afterwards she didn’t like how it made her feel, so she stopped. Some people chose to continue smoking during cancer treatment because they felt that it relieved stress. Others who had quit found they still craved a cigarette when stressed. Some people said their partner had also quit; David (Interview 23) hadn’t smoked but said that his wife quit on the day his colorectal cancer was diagnosed.
Other lifestyle changes people mentioned included resting more and making time to relax, avoiding stress, trying complementary therapies, such as reiki, acupuncture and reflexology and starting new hobbies. One man avoided certain household chemicals in case they had caused his leukaemia. A man who’d had colorectal cancer stopped diving because his wife didn’t like him doing it. They took up golf together.
Lifestyle changes after cancer are not always made through choice, some are forced upon people by the illness or its treatment. Some people said their diet was restricted by the impacts of cancer treatment or by diabetes or heart disease.

Audio & video

Some people said that although they could have used their cancer as a catalyst to improving their lifestyle they had not done so. Some chose not to quit smoking: Les was in denial about how it might affect his health; a man with lung cancer said it was because he always needs a cigarette when dealing with a crisis. Others said they still didn’t eat healthily. Some didn’t want to change their lifestyle if it meant cutting out things they enjoyed. Several believed their lifestyle was healthy anyway so they could not improve it.

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​Last reviewed October 2018.


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