A cancer diagnosis brings a lot of changes with it: Changes in what and how you eat, how you feel, your daily routine and more.

And while some of those changes might feel restrictive, there are a lot of changes you can make yourself – to your diet, activity level and lifestyle – that can help make your treatments more effective, their side effects less bothersome, your quality of life higher and more.

Read on for tips and advice in each of these areas.

Nutrition tips for people with cancer

A well-balanced diet is important for everyone, but it’s especially important during cancer treatment. Some of the key benefits can include:

  • More energy
  • A stronger immune system
  • Faster healing
  • Better quality of life
  • Better tolerance of treatment

Your care team will have plenty of recommendations for what and how to eat, but there are some general guidelines that you can keep in mind.

What makes a good diet for someone with cancer?

Generally, a big challenge for people trying to eat healthy foods during cancer treatment is that the treatment’s side effects can make it harder to eat the same volume of food that you normally would. Your main diet goal during treatment is to get enough energy, so a good diet focuses on density – foods that are high in calories, protein or nutrients:

  • For adding extra calories – Butter, cream, margarine, olive oil, avocados, mayonnaise, gravies, sauces and nut butters.
  • For protein – Lean meats, fish, eggs, Greek yogurt, cheese, milk, tofu, beans, nuts and seeds.
  • For other nutrients – Fruits, vegetables, whole grains and fortified cereals or drinks.

It’s also important to drink plenty of fluids, especially when you don’t have much of an appetite. Water, broth, juice, milk, milk alternatives and sports drinks can all count towards your liquid intake, while providing some extra calories and nutrients.

How to make eating easier

If you find that you’re having trouble eating as much as your care team recommends, it may help to change the timing or structure of your meals, which could include:

  • Tracking your appetite – Some people find that their appetite changes throughout the day. If you’re hungriest in the morning, for example, try to pack as much into breakfast as you comfortably can.
  • Eating smaller meals – Rather than three large meals per day, it may be easier to eat five or six smaller meals at more frequent intervals.
  • Blending your food – Liquids are easier to consume and digest faster than solid food, so making shakes and smoothies can be helpful for reaching your calorie goals.

Foods to avoid for people with cancer

Cancer and cancer treatments can weaken the immune system, so foods that carry a risk of foodborne illness should be avoided. These include:

  • Raw or undercooked meat, fish and seafood
  • Eggs that aren’t cooked all the way through
  • Unpasteurized dairy products and juices
  • Unwashed produce

Aside from foodborne illness risk, you may also want to avoid certain foods during cancer treatment if they’re contributing to treatment-related side effects:

  • Nausea – For some, foods and drinks with strong smells or flavors can increase nausea symptoms. Foods that help with nausea from chemo include ginger (such as ginger ale, ginger snaps and tea), and simple soups, crackers, toast, banana, oatmeal, or any food with a mild flavor.
  • Dry mouth – Certain treatments like radiation to the head, face or neck can impair salivary glands and lead to dry mouth. So foods that are spicy, salty, hard or crunchy may not be easy or enjoyable to eat.
  • Mouth sores – Like with dry mouth, spicy, salty, hard or crunchy foods may be difficult to eat comfortably. In addition, citrus, tomatoes and raw vegetables can also cause discomfort if you have mouth sores.
  • Sore throat or trouble swallowing – Certain cancer treatments can cause esophagitis, which is an inflammation (or swelling) of the esophagus, making it painful or difficult for some people to eat. So avoiding solid foods, as well as foods and drinks that are hot, spicy or acidic can be a good idea.

Exercise tips for people with cancer

Numerous studies have shown that there are many benefits of exercise for all people, but staying active can be especially helpful for patients who have cancer. One study states that exercise can help reduce treatment-related adverse effects and enhance the curative effects of cancer treatment. In addition, regular physical activity can improve:

  • Body and brain function
  • Appetite
  • Energy
  • Sleep
  • Mental well-being

What a good exercise routine looks like depends on your pre-cancer fitness level, the type and stage of your cancer, any treatment-related side effects you’re experiencing and how much energy you have.

Generally speaking, the goal is to stay as active as possible during treatment. This is another area where your care team will be able to help you, and you’ll need to talk to them before you start any new routine. But there are a few things that you can expect.

What is the best exercise for cancer patients?

As a general guideline, the American College of Sports Medicine recommends building up to at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity per week, as well as at least 2-3 sessions each of strength training and stretching.

Examples of aerobic activities include:

  • Walking or hiking
  • Stationary cycling
  • Swimming
  • Dancing

Strength training can involve pushing and pulling any combination of:

  • Hand weights
  • Resistance bands
  • Your own bodyweight

Examples of stretching activities include:

  • Yoga
  • Tai chi

How to start an exercise routine during cancer treatment

Start out slow. This will help you determine how much energy you have and what level of activity you feel comfortable with, so you don’t hurt or overwork yourself.

You might start with 10-minute walks around your neighborhood that you build up over time, for example. As you increase the variety and intensity of your activities, add in warm-up and cooldown periods at the beginning and end to give your body time to adjust.

There may be days where it comes time to exercise and you feel far more tired than you expected to be. If this happens, don’t push yourself. Just do what you can. Something is better than nothing.

Lifestyle tips for people with cancer

In addition to diet and exercise, there are other factors that can have a large impact on your quality of life during cancer treatment.

Avoid toxins

The health benefits of limiting alcohol and not smoking are well known, but avoiding these substances becomes even more important when you have a cancer diagnosis.

Both alcohol and chemotherapy drugs are processed in the liver, and alcohol consumption can make those drugs less effective. Alcohol can also worsen treatment-related side effects like nausea, mouth sores and dehydration, and have negative interactions with other medications your care team prescribes.

Smoking cigarettes has a similar effect on chemotherapy drugs, but it can also interact with other treatments. It can make radiation therapy less effective, and if you need surgery, cigarette use can slow healing and increase your risk of complications like infections afterwards. And like alcohol, smoking can also worsen side effects of treatment.

It’s worth noting that cigarette smoke and marijuana smoke contain many of the same chemicals. So if you’re interested in using cannabis during cancer treatment, your care team will likely recommend a different means of consuming it.

Get quality sleep during cancer treatment

From physical symptoms and side effects of treatment to stress and anxiety about the future, there are a lot of ways that cancer can make it hard to sleep well. Be sure to let your care team know if you aren’t getting enough sleep – they’ll help figure out what’s contributing, make any necessary medication changes, and give you recommendations and techniques to help you fall and stay asleep.

But there are also things you can do on your own to improve your sleep quality, such as:

  • Exercise – As noted above, regular physical activity can aid sleep in two ways: by using up energy and by settling your mind.
  • Keep a routine – Our bodies respond well to consistent habits. Going to bed at the same time every night and getting up at the same time every morning can train your body to expect it.
  • Limit naps – Try to keep them to around 20 minutes, and don’t take them later than midafternoon.
  • Let your stomach settle – Stop eating and drinking several hours before you go to bed. Avoid having fatty, spicy or sugary foods in your last meal of the day.
  • Create a good sleep environment – Keep your bedroom cool, quiet and dark. Earplugs and a sleep mask can help. And because our bodies like habits, use your bedroom exclusively for sleep.
  • Practice relaxation techniques – Taking a warm shower or bath and reading can help your body and mind settle before you get into bed. There are plenty of other strategies that can help too, and we touch on a few below.

Manage stress

Relieving stress and anxiety isn’t just important for sleep – it can help keep you grounded and positive overall, which can translate into a higher quality of life, better tolerance of your treatment and many other positives. A counselor or therapist can identify specific techniques to help you cope with the emotions of cancer, or for anything else you’re feeling, but you can start out with:

  • Breathing exercises where you take slow, controlled breaths to help your body relax.
  • Visualizing peaceful environments or situations.
  • Meditating on questions or ideas, or with the goal of letting all thoughts pass by you.
  • Picking up a new hobby that holds your attention and allows you to relax, like painting.

Make changes for the better

There’s so much that you can do to make living with cancer more manageable. How you eat, exercise and live day to day can make you stronger in both body and mind. Plus, you’ve got your care team. Anytime you have questions or need help with any of the effects of cancer or cancer treatment, they’ll be there for you. All you have to do is ask.