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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.
 

Since having testicular cancer 5 years ago he has cut out dairy products and takes vitamin and...

Since having testicular cancer 5 years ago he has cut out dairy products and takes vitamin and...

Age at interview: 32
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 27
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From looking again on the internet, what some internet sites are suggesting is that the food chain nowadays and the processed food, there are so many female hormones in the food chain that they think that this is having an effect on the increased rise of testicular cancer among men. Again those are from mostly American websites who tend to be a little bit more diverse in their thinking. 
 
Now from that, and from generally trying to keep as fit as possible since I was ill, I don't drink milk, I try and avoid cheeses and stuff like that which, because that sort of produce is more farmed with those sort of drugs. In other words they're feeding the cattle lots of female hormones to beef them up to increase the milk supply and stuff like that, which is why I try and avoid milk and cheeses and stuff like that. But again that's only a bit of information that I've got from the website and it's not proven at all. But again if by doing that I might be protecting myself then I think it's very worthwhile doing. Again it's certainly, it makes you look at life very closely after having cancer. I try to weigh up everything you're eating, I try and take as many vitamins and stuff like that. And initially, definitely after the chemotherapy finished and I was starting to feel well again for the first time, I went over the top, I was taking so many vitamins I must've been almost rattling at times, and definitely in recent years I've calmed down a lot now. But again it's because, it's not really worry, to say that I was worrying it sounds terrible, you know, it's hypochondriac almost, but no, it just opens your eyes to the possibility that you might have an illness that you're not going to recover from, and it concentrates you on doing everything you can to make sure that you're going to conquer that illness. So I looked into all sorts of vitamin and mineral supplements and things that were supposed to help and, you know, if you're not in you can't win as it were, you know, if you're not sort of on this regime then it's definitely not going to help you. So I mean I've tried most things. Whether it has helped me in being four years down the line and still clear of cancer or not I suppose I'll never know but…
 
Have you tried any other sort of complementary therapies? I mean you've changed your diet a little bit
 
Yeah.
 
And you’re taking extra vitamin supplements, have you ever tried anything else in the line of complementary therapies?
 
I went to a, he wasn't a Chinese medical practitioner but he specialised in nutritional supplements, much along the same lines as a Chinese medical practitioner would do in terms of herbs and things like that. And he recommended lots of different things to me that, you know, can be helpful, and I did follow that for I would say about a year and a half. I didn't take any milk whatsoever and stuff, soya milk for everything. The different mineral supplements that he recommended I stayed on for about a year and a half or so, and again I don't, I'll never know whether that's why I'm clear of cancer now but certainly it did no harm. It was basically a very, very strong detox diet almost, followed up by heavy vitamin and mineral 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.
 

Having had hormone treatment and pain relief only for his advanced prostate cancer, he researched...

Having had hormone treatment and pain relief only for his advanced prostate cancer, he researched...

Age at interview: 65
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 59
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Have you tried any other alternative treatment at all or changed your diet or anything like that?
 
Yes, yes I've changed my diet quite considerably. I've stopped having virtually all red meat, eating mostly white meat and fish, eating a lot of green vegetables, taking dietary supplements, such things as green tea, eating things with a lot of anti-oxidants in them, taking supplements like Vitamin C, Vitamin, well Vitamins A, C and E, zinc, selenium, garlic, all of which I've been taking for several years, which I think helps. Again, I've read up a lot of alternative therapy for prostate cancer and I haven't done anything without knowledge, I've done things in an informed way just because somebody says, "Well yes this does you good or that does you good", I haven't just taken their word for it, I've done my own research, and because you can get it from the Internet quite easily I've been able to do quite a bit of research into all the things that I decide to take myself. So…
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.
 

Janet tried to buy good quality food and gave up alcohol during colorectal cancer treatment 7...

Janet tried to buy good quality food and gave up alcohol during colorectal cancer treatment 7...

Age at interview: 59
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 52
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 I had had the experience before I was diagnosed of working with someone who’s also self-employed, who died of cancer, and I could see he was just refusing to adapt to his illness in any way. He was giving himself impossible work schedules. He was drinking loads of red wine, which is bad for the liver, which is already getting a caning because you’re having these toxic drugs. You know, I mean he was doing absolutely not a, changing his lifestyle in any way such that he was sort of being constructive about getting better, and I couldn’t understand it. I mean I didn’t nag him about it because that was his choice, but I thought, “Well, you know, that’s absolutely not how not to get better”. I mean, you know, I’d had living proof of it, if you like, or dying proof of it.

 
And so I did things like give up alcohol completely, make sure my food was really good. I didn’t take buckets and buckets of additional supplements as some people do. 
 
And you also mentioned about changing your diet and what you drank or didn’t drink.
 
[mm mm]
 
And is that something that you’re still doing now or was that something…?
 
Yes, well, I was doing it before to some extent. I mean I had what I think most of my friends regarded as a healthy diet but I consciously, I sometimes had cash flow problems so I would tend to skimp on what I’d spent in the supermarket, perhaps not buy the best quality things and so on, buy good stuff but not the best quality. And I started, I consciously started to buy organic milk, for example and, you know, because it would, you know, have less, I mean whether this is true or not, I don’t know, you know, one of those urban myths, but I figured it might have less sort of hormones and things like that in it, you know, which might not be all that good for me. So I started buying organic things. I started, as I say, I gave up alcohol altogether for two years. I still wouldn’t drink red wine because I know it just doesn’t do for my body anymore because you become very sensitive when you’re so ill, and you can, you know, you can feel your body being affected by different things. 
 
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.
 

Christopher deliberately lost weight after his prostate cancer operation but regained it all on...

Christopher deliberately lost weight after his prostate cancer operation but regained it all on...

Age at interview: 63
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 57
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 But after the operation, once I was feeling better, and I did make a conscious effort and I lost quite a bit of weight. I lost a stone I think. I went on holiday and it was like, it was almost like my body was wanting to absorb all this food, you know, again. And I put it straight on again and I found that quite depressing because I thought, “Oh, you know, I’ve put all that effort into it”. But last year I made a conscious effort and I lost two stone and it stayed off all year and so I’m still two stone lighter and I’m trying to lose a little bit more weight. I think primarily it was my knees were telling me to lose a bit of weight because again the walking, and although I live in a bungalow, we’ve got stairs at work, and at the end of the week you’re thinking, “Oh, don’t, not more stairs”. So I’m trying to lose a little bit more weight but, yeah, physically I feel quite good. And I’m not sitting at a desk all day long, which I’m happy, and, as I said to you earlier, I’m retiring in a year’s time, so hopefully I can do a bit more walking and just getting out, and gardening I enjoy so I try and keep, you know, I’m not trying to do extreme sports or extreme exercise but just gentle moving about and keep the body moving.

 

She was always active but since her ovarian cancer she has taken up running and golf and is...

She was always active but since her ovarian cancer she has taken up running and golf and is...

Age at interview: 44
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 38
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Have you changed your lifestyle at all as a result of your cancer?
 
Well I was always a very active person and I would say as a result I have probably become even more active because I get such a buzz from being active. Before I had cancer I would have played hockey, squash, as I was growing up, going to aerobics, and I always walked the dogs. After cancer I took up running, I took part in a few women's runs, the ‘Run for Life’ for the charity, running at that stage just three miles, increased that then to take part in the relays for the marathon in [town] running six miles. I took part in a women's run again for charity in London, and took part this year again in the marathon, not the whole thing now, just the six miles, five or six miles. I started to walk more than before and I think for a while I became nearly addicted to exercise. I found that it made me feel so good and again I felt that it was doing me so much good physically and psychologically that I find that now a very important part of my life. I then took up golf and have a great love for the game and play that very regularly, so again on the exercise plus the social aspect of it. So I would say in life changes that’s probably the thing that I have changed the most, is my attitude to exercise. 
 
I always ate a fairly balanced diet, my career was down that path of food, food science and technology, so I wouldn't call myself an expert by any means but I always believed in a balanced diet and I would eat more fruit and veg now. I would never have been a great lover of chips, apart from that time I was very hungry in hospital, and fatty foods, you know, very fatty foods, I never was a great lover of those anyway. So you know, I haven't really had to adapt my eating habits terribly. 
 
One thing that, you know, when you're in hospital you have to drink a lot of water, and I know that drinking water is very, very good for the body. I try to drink water, and so I probably replace some of the fizzy drinks that maybe I used to drink with water now, and keep a constant supply of chilled water in the fridge, and that helps as well. 

 

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.
 

She knew that smoking had caused her lung cancer; she gave up a week before her diagnosis 7 years...

She knew that smoking had caused her lung cancer; she gave up a week before her diagnosis 7 years...

Age at interview: 64
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 57
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I mean I always say my cancer was caused because I smoked, I knew I shouldn’t have done because I always had bad colds and chest infections caused by it. I'd lost my father thirty-odd years prior to that with lung cancer through smoking and yet it still didn't make me stop. But I did manage to stop in actual fact the week before I was diagnosed, and fortunately I've never wanted one since, so I've been very lucky that way too.  

 

He continued smoking throughout his lymphoma treatment because it was stressful, but stopped...

He continued smoking throughout his lymphoma treatment because it was stressful, but stopped...

Age at interview: 46
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 29
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Did you change your lifestyle in any way as a result of your illness in terms of diet, exercise, smoking, that sort of thing?
 
Well I was a smoker at the time and throughout the whole process I was told that smoking as a contributor to lymphoma would not necessarily have had anything to do with it. And in fact they advised me through the process, “If you’re a smoker keep smoking, because the stress factors are high enough anyway and we don’t necessarily want you to create more stress by giving up smoking through the process. Though of course they advised that it would be in my long-term interest to give up smoking afterwards because if I’d had a type of cancer in the past that was probably some kind of indicator that I might be more liable to other types of cancer in the future and it was best for me to reduce my risk. But I was not advised to stop smoking through the process.
 
And did you stop smoking later?
 
I did stop smoking later and then I took up smoking again some time after that, and I’ve stopped now.
 
Well done. Was that difficult?
 
It’s always difficult to give up smoking I think because you can give up for a period of time and then three years without a cigarette and then you can pick one up and it’s like you did it yesterday. So I imagine it’s the same as alcohol or any other drug.
 
Did you just use willpower or did you use any particular method to do that?
 
No I just used willpower. And actually it was when I met my second wife really that I stopped. She didn’t like it, I wanted her, she didn’t like it so, so I gave up.

 

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.
 

Vic has made no lifestyle changes because of his colorectal cancer except that since his...

Vic has made no lifestyle changes because of his colorectal cancer except that since his...

Age at interview: 81
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 73
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 You mentioned that you’ve changed the way that, you know, maybe you can’t bend down and do gardening in the same way. Have you made any other changes to your lifestyle now as a result of having had cancer?

 
No, I don’t think so. I mean the lifestyle is dictated really by the diabetes. I mean a lot of what I do, I mean I do my own cooking. I mean the diet is quite restricted. As far as the cancer is concerned it hasn’t affected that at all. But it is, I do find the biggest problem is gardening and, of course, any activity that involves bending.
 
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.
 

Luke says he could have used his leukaemia as an excuse for giving up smoking and drinking but he...

Luke says he could have used his leukaemia as an excuse for giving up smoking and drinking but he...

Age at interview: 64
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 59
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Have you made any changes to your lifestyle as a result of your leukaemia?
 
No, no, not really, though I could have used it as a, you know, excuses for, you know, stopping smoking, stopping drinking, all sorts of things, not that that affected leukaemia of course but I, you know, I could have said, ‘Well, now I’ve been given, not a second chance but, you know, I should sort of smarten my life up’. But I didn’t, no, no.
 
But you’ve had other illnesses as well, so…
 
Oh yes, yes, yes.
 
…it’s not the first time you’ve faced that kind of thing.
 
No, no, as I say, I’ve had melanoma, at the moment I’ve got prostate problems, I’ve got, I keep forgetting what they are, I’m on piles of sort of medicines. But so I’m well used, until I reached the twenty-first century I’d never been in hospital, nothing, and then suddenly bang, everything happened. So the last six years I’ve been in and out of hospital and so that’s why I get involved with medical things now because I’ve got some patient experience. But no, since a couple of things have happened. In fact I have actually finally done the thing that, you know, I haven’t been, you know, I’ve stopped drinking completely, I’ve stopped smoking completely, so those have been some more achievements. But I can’t say I necessarily feel much healthier for it. My bank balance is doing well. Yeah.
 
And you didn’t do those things specifically because of your leukaemia?
 

No, no, no. No I don’t think it impacted, no, not really, no, no. So… 

 

Wendy was brought up on a farm eating organic fruit and vegetables so believes her diet is...

Wendy was brought up on a farm eating organic fruit and vegetables so believes her diet is...

Age at interview: 63
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 47
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Has anyone ever suggested things that you could do to prevent cancer coming back?
 
Well, not drink too much, and diet, were the two things I was told, and once again, I’m not obsessive. I’ve always eaten healthily and I grew up on a farm in [name]. It was all organic vegetables and things, so if that should prevent it I shouldn’t have got it in the first place, is how I feel. I do drink. I have wine with my supper every day, and to be honest, I’ve no intention of stopping that because you’ve got to live your life, and another honesty is I don’t want to become eighty-odd with dementia living in a home. So I’ll just enjoy life. That’s my motto.
 
So in terms of sort of changing things, you haven’t really changed or felt that you want to change things?
 
No, I possibly take more exercise now than I used to, but that’s probably because I’ve got more time now. The children are no longer at home and so on and I am semi-retired from the business. I think I’m more aware of what I eat and of what I drink. I mean I’ve never drunk a lot. I’ve only ever had a couple of glasses of wine with food. As I say, I do think exercise is very important now. It’s important not just for the body but for mental well-being, so it’s lots of good walks.
 
And usually with a friend, so that’s therapeutic as well. I think everybody should have a friend to walk with. 

 




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​Last reviewed October 2018.
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