Cancer survivors: Steps to ensure your optimal health

Cancer survivors: Steps to ensure your optimal health

Leading a healthy lifestyle is important for anyone who wants to improve their health and well-being, but it is especially important for cancer survivors. Whether you have finished active treatment, are on maintenance therapy, are having ongoing treatment for a stable and slow-growing cancer, are on active surveillance or in remission, there are simple steps you can follow to take care of yourself and achieve your optimal health. This will help reduce the risk of cancer recurrence as well as non-cancer-related health conditions such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes and osteoporosis.

Don’t smoke

If you stop smoking or using chewing tobacco, you can reduce the risk of cancer recurrence and lower your risk of developing a second type of cancer. It’s one of the best things you can do to improve your overall health. Talk to your doctor about resources to help you quit.

Avoid secondhand smoke

Make sure your home and vehicle are smoke-free and avoid exposure to tobacco smoke. Research has shown that exposure to secondhand smoke can lead to higher death rates in cancer patients as well as higher rates of strokes and heart attacks in cancer survivors, as well as in those who have not had cancer.

Exercise regularly

Finding time for regular exercise can increase your sense of well-being after cancer treatment and speed your recovery. Research has suggested that staying active after cancer treatment can help lower the risk of cancer returning and lead to longer survival. The benefits of exercise include: increased strength and endurance; fewer symptoms of depression and anxiety; improved sleep; and, reduced fatigue and pain.

Start slow and work up to 30 minutes of moderate activity every day such as brisk walking, tai chi or water aerobics. Moderate activities also include raking leaves, vacuuming or doing the laundry. Here are some tips to get you going:

  • Choose activities you enjoy like walking, gardening and dancing.
  • Try going to the gym at the same time each day or take a walk after dinner.
  • Take the stairs.
  • Park your vehicle at the far end of the lot.
  • Exercise with someone else to stay motivated.
  • Play active games with your kids, and go on family walks and bike rides.

If possible, try to include exercises such as weight training that help strengthen muscles, increase flexibility and maintain range of motion. As you get fitter and stronger, you can slowly start more vigorous physical activity like running, martial arts or swimming laps.

You can achieve your overall goal of 30 minutes a day in 3 separate sessions of 10 minutes each. Do what you can, and remember that rest is also important to your recovery.

Be sure to check with your doctor before you start any exercise program.

Maintain a healthy weight

During treatment, you may have gained or lost weight. Talk to your doctor about what a healthy weight is for you and the best way to go about achieving it.

Tips for losing weight include: increasing physical activity and movement each day; limiting time in front of the TV and computer; eating a diet rich in fruits, vegetables and whole grains; choosing smaller portions and eating more slowly. Remember to take it slowly – weight loss should be no more than 2 pounds a week.

If you need to gain weight, talk to a dietitian about ways to make food more appealing and easier to eat.

Eat a balanced, healthy diet

Focus on eating fruits, vegetables and whole grains, and keep red meat and processed meat to a minimum.

The American Cancer Society recommends that cancer survivors:

  • Eat at least 2.5 cups of fruits and vegetables every day.
  • Choose healthy fats, including omega-3 fatty acids, such as those found in fish and walnuts.
  • Select proteins that are low in saturated fat, such as fish, lean meats, eggs, nuts, seeds and legumes.
  • Opt for healthy sources of carbohydrates, such as whole grains, legumes, fruits and vegetables.

If you’re concerned about getting all the vitamins you need, ask your doctor about taking a daily multivitamin.

Drink alcohol in moderation or not at all

In some people, moderate drinking can reduce the risk of heart disease, but it can also increase the risk of certain cancers, including mouth and throat cancers. If you choose to drink alcohol, drink in moderation (up to one drink a day for women of all ages and men older than 65, and up to two drinks per day for men 65 and younger).

Get enough sleep

Problems sleeping are more common in people with cancer, even survivors. This can be due to physical changes, side effects of treatment or stress. Getting enough sleep is an important part of your recovery. It can boost your cognitive skills, improve hormone function and lower blood pressure. Some tips for getting a good night’s sleep include:

  • Avoid caffeine for at least 8 hours before bedtime.
  • Stick to a regular sleep schedule.
  • Avoid computer or television screens for 1 to 2 hours before bedtime.
  • Exercise no later than 2-3 hours before bed.
  • Keep your bedroom quiet and dim.

If you feel excessively sleepy during the day, talk to your doctor.

Reduce stress

Reducing stress can improve your quality of life by helping relieve depression, anxiety and symptoms related to cancer and its treatment. Effective coping strategies include:

  • Relaxation or meditation techniques, such as mindfulness training
  • Counselling
  • Cancer support groups
  • Medications for depression or anxiety
  • Exercise
  • Interacting with friends and family

Protect yourself from the sun

Stay out of direct sunlight between 10am and 4pm. Too much exposure to sun can lead to skin cancer. Tanning beds can be just as harmful. Wear a hat, long sleeves and sunscreen with SPF30 or higher.

Go for regular check-ups

Follow-up visits with your doctor are an important part of managing your healthcare after treatment. Follow-up care allows your doctor to monitor your progress and recovery from treatment. It also gives you an opportunity to talk about any problems or concerns you may have about your health after treatment.

If you’re feeling anxious about your appointments:

  • Take someone with you.
  • Try to view the visit as positive. Follow-up care can give you peace of mind and increase the chances of anything unusual being caught early.
  • Talk to your doctor about any new symptoms.

Always tell the healthcare team about any medicines, vitamins, herbs or different healing approaches you may be using.

Do what you can to improve your health

You don’t have to rush into all these lifestyle changes at once. Ease into a healthy diet and regular exercise routine. That way you’ll be more likely to make them part of your life for the long-term and positively impact your overall health and well-being.


American Association for Cancer Research

Canadian Cancer Society

Cancer Care Ontario

US National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health

Mayo Clinic

Siteman Cancer Center at Barnes Jewish Hospital and Washington University School of Medicine