A life-threatening illness is a major event in a person’s life, and while some try to continue their lives in the same way as before, others try to change how they will live in future. Some women we talked to decided that they would try to live healthier lives to give their bodies the best chance of fighting the cancer, avoiding a recurrence and living to old age. For many this meant eating a healthier diet. Several had reduced or eliminated alcohol, coffee, sugar, salt, meat, eggs, wheat or dairy products, cakes, chocolate, processed or ‘junk foods’ from their diets and ate more fresh fruit and vegetables or organic foods. Some also took vitamins or other food supplements, or had started to drink green tea (which, like fruit and vegetables, is high in antioxidant vitamins). Some women ate a healthier diet to lose weight, and one because her partner was trying to lose weight. Women could not always see what changes they could make because they had lived a healthy life before their illness.
Changed to eating mainly organic food and avoiding convenience foods to keep as well as possible.
Did not change her diet or exercise regimens because her lifestyle had always been healthy.
A few women said that they had considered following a dramatically different diet but had decided that it would be too restrictive. One had known someone who had followed an extreme diet and had found it depressing when they died. She thought it would be better to eat foods that she enjoyed. Not everyone finds it easy to make dietary changes. Some tried to eat healthily but said they slipped back into bad habits or had a partner who stuck to their habitual diet. One woman had become reliant on convenience foods since her illness because she felt too tired to cook. Some had taken advice or read about healthy eating for people living with cancer but thought it was contradictory. This was sometimes because of confusing research results that suggest that foods, such as fruits and vegetables, are beneficial although vitamin supplements are not.
Found it hard to adjust her diet during treatment and found dietary advice for people with cancer…
Women who had part of their bowel removed as treatment for their cancer (see ‘Surgery’) or bowel blockages (see ‘Controlling the symptoms of advanced ovarian cancer’) had been advised (correctly) to eat less fruit and vegetables to keep their bowels working. For more information on diet see Macmillan Cancer Support’s website on ‘Eating well after cancer’ and ‘Weight management after cancer treatment’.
Finds it difficult to adopt the low fibre diet she needs because she had had bowel blockages.
A few women had cut down or given up smoking, although one who was still smoking explained that she knew she should stop but needed to feel stronger to give up. Some women were taking more exercise to keep healthy or lose weight. Some went to the gym or exercise classes, others took up sports such as running, golf or bowls, and others walked more. Exercise can help people to relax or to think more clearly, and many enjoy being outdoors. A woman who had been very active before her illness, had increased the amount of exercise she did. Others found it difficult to exercise because they were not well enough or felt too tired, and one had been advised not to swim during chemotherapy because of a risk of infection from the pool.
Was very active before her illness but now does even more sport and exercise.
Because of their illness some women felt they could no longer do all they used to do and needed more rest. For this reason many retired early, returned to work part-time, or planned to do so. A social worker didn’t want to return to looking after elderly people because she resented their health in old age when she had been so ill. A teacher missed out on promotion by retiring. A shop worker lost her job because she had been on sick leave so long (see ‘Financial implications’). Some women who initially returned to work full-time found it difficult and decided to go part-time or take a break. A university administrator went back to full-time work with no problems, and a clerk who had intended to work fewer hours and less hard on her return had not done so. A sales manager initially returned to work but left after her cancer recurred. Some women worked during their treatment on days that they felt well but took a break afterwards.
Could not do all that she could before her illness because she tired easily and needed more rest.
Worked (as a nurse) when she could during her treatment, but afterwards found full-time work…
Some who retired began working for voluntary organisations. Other women took up new sports or hobbies such as art, writing, or learning new skills. Several took more holidays or short trips, but one said she travelled less because of concerns about obtaining medical care abroad if she needed it. One woman spent her remission caring for her sick mother, but after receiving treatment for a recurrence of her cancer planned to travel round the world.
Retired from her job during treatment and then took up voluntary work.
Spent her remission caring for her sick mother but after her cancer returned planned to travel…
Some women moved house, many because their earnings had dropped. One moved after marital breakdown. A woman living in Canada decided to return to the UK because she needed regular kidney dialysis (see ‘Treatment complications’) and would be less mobile, but had to live apart from her husband because he could not find work in the UK.