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Living Well During Treatment

Cancer can affect people in many ways — physically, mentally, spiritually, and emotionally. Your initial focus may be managing and adjusting to physical changes that occur with cancer treatment. Addressing the other effects of cancer can also help you through treatment and toward healing.

Treatment Side Effects

Most people have some side effects from their cancer treatments. Common side effects include pain, fatigue, memory problems, hair loss, and nausea. Talk to your care team about what side effects you might experience, and how you can minimize them. Managing side effects is an important part of your treatment plan and your self-care plan. Medicines are available to help manage some side effects.

Continuing to Work

Unfortunately, responsibilities don’t go away when you have cancer. However your priorities during treatment will change. Taking care of yourself will be one of your most important jobs. This is true whether you work in or outside the home.  

Planning ahead can help. To keep a household or your own business going, ask family members or trusted friends and neighbors for help. Or line up people you can hire to handle some tasks. Talk to your employer about taking sick leave, time off, reducing your hours, telecommuting, or working a flexible schedule. Make sure you know how this will impact your job and your benefits.

Creating a Self-Care Plan  

The treatment plan you develop with your oncologist will help your body get healthy — but it focuses only on the disease, not the rest of you. A self-care plan is also important.

A self-care plan helps you stay as healthy and as active as possible during your treatment. It can help you keep your life more balanced. Your cancer team or personal physician can help you develop a self-care plan. It might include:

Physical activity to help you stay strong.
This might seem like the last thing you want to do if you’re feeling overwhelmed, tired, and weak. However, physical activity can actually help refresh you — as long as you don’t overdo it — and help you maintain strength, overcome fatigue, sleep better, and improve your self-esteem. Your care team can help you find activities that are right for you.

Healthy eating to get the nutrition you need. Side effects from cancer treatment, such as mouth sores, nausea, or changes in your sense of smell or taste, can make it hard to follow a regular diet. Getting good nutrition as your treatment begins will help your body handle the effects of treatment. It will also help your body with the healing process when treatment is done. A registered dietitian can help design an eating plan that includes all the nutrients your body needs.

Ask your doctor for a referral to Nutrition Services.

Relaxation techniques to manage stress. There's a strong connection between the mind and body. Relaxation and visualization techniques are powerful tools that can help reduce stress and anxiety, and can help control pain.

Relaxation techniques include breathing and muscle relaxation exercises. In visualization, you use the mind to imagine yourself in a different time or place. You might feel positive results in as little as 10 minutes.

Positive thinking to keep a hopeful attitude. Having a positive attitude doesn't mean you won't feel doubtful or anxious at times. It means acknowledging that many people survive cancer and you can be one of them.

Make it part of your plan to connect with cancer survivors. Use their stories for inspiration. Focus on things in your life that bring you joy. Consider taking a few minutes each day to write down some of the things you’re grateful for.

Develop your self-care plan one part at a time,  and keep your goals realistic and doable. You can increase your activities gradually, as you're able. Filling out a weekly action plan (PDF) can help you get started.

Taking Care of Your Emotional Health

Patients and their families can experience various emotions at different times, including sadness, fear, anger, hope, anxiety, and depression.

Taking care of your emotional health during treatment is important, so you can continue with daily activities and responsibilities. Lining up support resources ahead of time will make difficult times easier.

People manage stress and difficult emotions in different ways. You might talk to a therapist, join a support group, or rely on friends and family for support. Creating a self-care plan (see above) also can help.

It's important to know the difference between temporary emotional distress, which can be managed by good self care, and serious depression. If you have been experiencing signs of depression for two weeks or longer, call your care team or contact Behavioral Health Services right away.

Connecting With Family and Friends

Cancer can change your relationships with family and friends. Relationships with some people might get stronger. You might lose touch with others. Many connect with new people who are facing (or have faced) a cancer diagnosis themselves.

Cancer can often place a strain on relationships. People may not know what to say, how to treat you, or how they can help. Be as honest as you can about your feelings and your needs. If you feel comfortable talking about your diagnosis and treatment, let people know what you’re going through and how they can help. If you prefer not to discuss details, you might let people know what they can do to support you.

Getting Support

Support groups and counseling during treatment help many patients feel less isolated and alone. Support groups may include friends and families of patients, too. You might need to try out a couple support groups before you find one that’s a good fit.

Counseling or therapy can also be helpful. Group Health Behavioral Health Services offers individual, group, and family counseling. Group Health Social Work Services help patients and families manage the day-to-day challenges during illness.

Complementary and Alternative Medicine

Some people living with cancer try other approaches to see if those can ease treatment side effects, improve overall health, or reduce stress.

Talk with your oncologist about any complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) you may be using or are considering. It's also important for your doctor to know if you're taking vitamins, herbs, supplements, or following a special diet to make sure they don’t interfere with your treatment.

Your Group Health coverage may include discounts for CAM. But always talk first with your doctor about other approaches you may want to try. The National Cancer Institute is sponsoring clinical trials on some CAM approaches, such as acupuncture to treat nausea side effects from certain types of chemotherapy and yoga to relieve fatigue in breast cancer survivors. You can ask your doctor about these trials to see if you might qualify.

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