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Ovarian Cancer

Lifestyle and work changes

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.

Changed to eating mainly organic food and avoiding convenience foods to keep as well as possible.

Age at interview: 50
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 47
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But when I go shopping, I now go shopping and I go to a certain supermarket who've got a good range of organic foods. And I go and I buy all the veg organic, as much as I can, and all the fruit. I buy tea and coffee. I've bought milk organic and as I say, I don't eat pre made foods, you know, full of all these Es, chlorines and etc, etc. And I mean, I think that's just trying to keep a healthier diet anyway. I mean, whether it will actually help the cancer, who knows, but it may keep me healthy which, you know, if you can keep your body as healthy as possible, and then you've got this handicap, it's got to be better, hasn't it, you know, than going out there and drinking and smoking and, you know, eating lots of, you know, ready made meals, that's not going to give you much of a chance, is it?  

 

Did not change her diet or exercise regimens because her lifestyle had always been healthy.

Did not change her diet or exercise regimens because her lifestyle had always been healthy.

Age at interview: 59
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 50
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Have you considered any changes to your lifestyle, your diet, exercise, that kind of thing?

Well no because I feel as though I've had a healthy diet, I'm a vegetarian anyway, which I'd been for a number of years before the operation. I'd not smoked, well for quite a few years, I mean I'd smoked until I was about 20, but for 30 years I hadn't smoked, I only drink socially, and I feel as though I have got quite a healthy lifestyle anyway. I look after myself, I'd always eaten the right food, well my parents had always insisted I eat the right food (laughing). I'd been brought up healthily and I had always been very fit; I've always exercised, I walk. So I didn't see, really, that there were any major changes that I could make.

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...

Found it hard to adjust her diet during treatment and found dietary advice for people with cancer...

Age at interview: 48
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 41
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I thought I probably ate fairly healthily but I do try and eat as much organic stuff as I can. A lot of people said to me at the time 'you ought to be eating this,' and 'you ought to be eating that.' But I found it quite a bit of a minefield really. I think going through chemotherapy is quite hard enough and for some people they find it quite easy to modify their diet and their lifestyle while they're having chemotherapy, but I just found it hard enough going through the treatment without making major modifications. And I think for some people the time for modification is after they've finished the treatment. But it can be quite difficult, you know, one paper says you should eat lots of vitamin C because it stops cancer, and then another research paper comes out and says 'Oh well Vitamin C causes cancer,' and you just don't know where to, which is right and which is wrong, so it can be very confusing.

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.

Finds it difficult to adopt the low fibre diet she needs because she had had bowel blockages.

Age at interview: 49
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 48
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Well I have to be, since the last blockage that I had, the, they recommend that I have a low fibre diet, and this is opposite to everything that I'd been eating before; I tried to eat healthily with high fibre and lots of fruit and vegetables. And I am, I don't usually eat meat but since I'm on this low fibre diet then I have eaten a little bit of meat and I don't eat the amount of fruit and vegetables that I did. 

It's difficult because sometimes I want to eat them and I have to peel everything and I'm supposed to sort of cook the vegetables till they're soft but I don't always. So I probably don't keep to it as much as I should but like I make bread and I can't eat wholemeal bread now, I have to have white bread, so there's all those sorts of things. And it's a bit embarrassing if you're in a restaurant and you get something like potatoes and you're sitting there peeling them off, peeling your new potatoes, it just looks very strange. But so I do that.  

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.

Was very active before her illness but now does even more sport and exercise.

Age at interview: 44
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 38
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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.  

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.

Could not do all that she could before her illness because she tired easily and needed more rest.

Age at interview: 43
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 41
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I do find I tire very easily. I couldn't spend a whole day shopping or anything like that because I would suffer for it. When I'm tired I just decide 'right okay, I'm going to bed this afternoon' and I go to bed and I just spend a couple of hours in my bed or 3 hours in my bed, whatever it takes. Or I find I'm not physically able to do the things I used to do, you know, I don't have the same strength. But then I think, well, you know, you just got to go with what you have, so, I do find that quite hard to, I mean it's not a big disability, but it is, I find it hard when I used to, I mean I was a sporty person when I was younger, but I couldn't do any of that now.

 

Worked (as a nurse) when she could during her treatment, but afterwards found full-time work...

Worked (as a nurse) when she could during her treatment, but afterwards found full-time work...

Age at interview: 48
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 41
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I think I realised I needed a bit of a break actually from, because I'd tried to work through a lot of the time I was having treatment, I don't think that was a good idea at all. But there's an intense pressure on you to do really well and to cope really well, and if you say you're going to not work there was, it's difficult to describe but you feel very guilty if you're not, you know, working as hard as possible, especially in the NHS, people think, you know, this is all a cop-out that, you know, you're not working while you're having treatment. But I really feel that it would have been beneficial if I'd just taken six months out while I was having treatment.

It was difficult, there were a lot of problems in the surgery I was working at at the time, and you don't want to put people under more problems because you're ill, so. But after a while I just decided that I needed a bit of a break. And I took six months out.

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.

Retired from her job during treatment and then took up voluntary work.

Age at interview: 65
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 59
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So you've changed your lifestyle as a result of having the cancer diagnosed?

Yes, and the fact that I have more free time now that I've retired during the treatment, and I have always worked, couldn't see me just sitting home doing nothing. I do quite a lot of voluntary work. I've just been appointed as Assistant County Organiser for the National Gardens Scheme, and I started up a garden club in the village last year, and I work for the National Trust, and oh one or 2 other bits and pieces that I do. I can't say that I sat down and thought 'I've got to change my life', it didn't work like that. It sort of by osmosis it crept up from behind and 'oh yes, I'll do that and I'll do this'.

 

Spent her remission caring for her sick mother but after her cancer returned planned to travel...

Spent her remission caring for her sick mother but after her cancer returned planned to travel...

Age at interview: 58
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 49
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It just makes you look at life differently and unfortunately we didn't, well I say unfortunately, I wouldn't have given up caring for my mother, I had her at home for five years and she was five years in a home and I visited her at least once, twice a day because it was on the, it was round the corner, so she really did take over my life then but I had ten years with my mum, a lovely lady, and I think she spoilt me because she was ninety-six and everyone said 'oh your mother's lived this life, you've got longevity and you'll live forever' and I just assumed I'm going to live for a long time. 

So I'm going on Saturday, we're starting off going round the world, going to all the places and seeing friends and family, all the places my kids have already been to that we haven't and we've sponsored, so we're going off to do that, coming back and I actually arrive back I think on my birthday in August, and we shall stay up with the family for a couple of days, come back and I've got an appointment to see the oncologist Monday after we come back, and take it from there, ready I suppose for the next lot of chemo and go on from there.  

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.

 

Returned to the UK from Canada but now lives apart from her husband because he could not find work.

Returned to the UK from Canada but now lives apart from her husband because he could not find work.

Age at interview: 46
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 39
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Yes, I mean there's been fairly drastic implications for my family because I decided to move back here because this is where I grew up and I realised I would lose my mobility with having no kidneys. And I really couldn't face being stuck in Canada away from my family and the place I feel is home. So when I moved back here my husband and 2 sons initially moved back with me but my husband was unable to find work here. 

He's in his late 50s, he has a history degree but no vocational qualifications and he'd worked in a brewery most of his life and there was just nothing for him over here so he's had to move back there in order not to lose his job over there. Because financially he needs to be working, we have 2 children at university now and so it's very, very hard for the 2 of us living apart. I mean the time we have together is wonderful and we talk every day on the phone but I think we're going to have to get one of those little picture mobile phones (laughing) so that we can see each other every day, as well.  


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Last reviewed June 2016.

Last updated February 2012.

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