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Living well with cancer during the coronavirus pandemic

You can feel more in control of your health when you have cancer by focusing on eating a balanced diet, staying physically active and looking after your mental wellbeing.

What you can do

Understandably, you might feel worried and overwhelmed right after a cancer diagnosis and while waiting to start treatment. The news reports about pressures on hospitals due to COVID-19 infections and hospitalisations might make you more anxious about having to deal with cancer during the pandemic.

But while NHS staff are working hard to ensure that cancer diagnosis and treatment can continue safely, there are three things you can focus on to feel more in control of your health during the pandemic. Try to:

  • eat a balanced diet
  • stay physically active
  • look after your mental wellbeing

Research shows if you get support early and live as healthily as possible for at least 6 weeks before starting treatment, you are more likely to:

  • leave hospital earlier
  • reduce the risk of complications
  • feel more in control of your health

And, if you stop smoking and cut down on alcohol, the benefits to your health could be even greater

This video explains the three things you can to help you feel more in control of your health.

Eat a balanced diet

Why eating and drinking a balanced diet is important

A balanced diet means eating a varied diet from a wide range of foods in the right proportions and drinking plenty of fluids. This can help you to achieve and maintain a healthy body weight. But this doesn’t mean you can’t allow yourself the occasional treat.

Eating a balanced diet can help your body to:

  • cope with treatment side effects
  • handle the best dose of certain treatments to treat your cancer
  • recover and heal faster
  • fight off infections
  • feel stronger, healthier and have more energy

Eating a varied diet with lots of protein helps the body fight off infections and heal itself. This is particularly important if you are having cancer surgery.

Being underweight can affect how well you cope with and recover from treatment. 

A balanced diet

Try to eat foods from all food groups. Foods to include are:

  • beans, pulses, fish, eggs, meat and other proteins
  • potatoes, bread, rice, pasta and other starchy carbohydrates
  • fruit and vegetables
  • oil and spreads (fats)
  • milk, yoghurt and cheese (dairy products)

The diagram below is of a plate of food. Each slice shows how much of that food group should be on your plate to follow a healthy balanced diet. This guidance is from Public Health England (PHE).

Your diet should be made up of mostly fruits, vegetables and wholegrain carbs, with some protein and dairy, or dairy alternatives

Also, drink 8 to 10 glasses of fluid per day. You can drink water, squash and some tea or coffee.

Tips

To help you eat a varied diet and keep a health weight, try to:

  • keep an eye on your weight - use a scale to weigh yourself regularly and speak to your GP or a healthcare professional if you are worried
  • check your food choices - compare what you eat with the food plate and stay aware of portion sizes
  • learn about healthier options by reading the colour coded labels (green, orange and red) on foods - a mostly green label is a healthier choice
  • consider the impact your food choices could have on your weight or health - a diet high in sugar and fat can lead to weight gain and becoming diabetic
  • plan any changes gradually - plan meals and snacks ahead to avoid choosing unhealthy options when feeling hungry

If you have diet problems

Some people living with cancer or waiting to start treatment can have diet problems. These include:

  • taste changes and loss of appetite
  • weight loss
  • difficulty swallowing
  • digestion problems
  • cachexia (wasting syndrome)
  • not enough fluid in the body (dehydration)
Talk to your GP or specialist nurse if you have problems with eating. They can refer you to a dietitian.

Stay physically active

Why physical activity is important

Being physically active means any movement that uses your muscles and more energy than when you’re resting. How much physical activity you can do and at what level, differs from person to person. 

Being physically active during the coronavirus pandemic doesn’t have to mean joining an online exercise class. It can also be walking to the shops, walking up the stairs, gardening or dancing.

Research has shown that being active can help people with cancer to:

  • reduce anxiety
  • improve depression
  • reduce fatigue
  • improve quality of life during and after cancer treatment
  • prevent or improve lymphoedema (a type of swelling caused by treatment to lymph nodes)
  • improve general physical functioning

Physical activity can be of a:

  • moderate intensity – this is when the activity makes you feel warmer, and breathe faster, but you can still talk; for example, brisk walking, cycling, gardening or housework
  • vigorous intensity – this is an activity that raises your heart rate and makes you start to sweat and feel out of breath; for example, running, aerobics and fast cycling

Guidelines

It is not possible to have one set of exercise guidelines to cover everyone with cancer. Everyone is different in terms of how much physical activity they can do. And there are many types of cancer and treatments. Check with your doctor if you’re not sure about a particular type of exercise.  

International guidelines say that it is safe to be active during cancer treatment and after. Also, people with cancer should try to be active and get back to their normal activities as soon as possible.

The UK government and the World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) have suggestions to help prevent cancer and other conditions. They say that all adults should try to do at least one of the following ways of exercising:

  • 150 minutes of moderate intensity activity per week; for example, 30 minutes 5 times per week
  • 75 minutes of vigorous activity per week

They also say that adults should do some strength building exercise twice a week; for example, weight training or yoga.

Remember, start slowly and gradually build up your activity at a pace and to a level that is comfortable for you. Talk to your GP or specialist nurse if you have problems that stop you from being physically active.

Tips

To help you with being more active, try to:

  • keep a diary of your physical activity - compare your activity with the guidelines
  • think about the benefits of being more active - such as weight loss or having more energy
  • think about what is stopping you from being active - such as feeling fatigued or not confident
  • find solutions to any barriers - such as setting small goals or using a fitness app to help you keep track of your progress
  • choose a local activity you enjoy doing - such as working out with a friend in the neighbourhood gym or going for a run in the fields near your house

Look after your mental wellbeing

Living with cancer or waiting to start cancer treatment, is not easy, and the coronavirus pandemic has made it even more difficult for people. Getting support from your loved ones can be harder at the moment. Social distancing can limit the contact you have with them. So you might need to think differently about how you do this.  

You might feel more vulnerable to getting the virus because you’ve had treatment or are going through treatment. Or if you’re waiting to start treatment, you might worry that your cancer will grow if you have to wait too long. Most people will feel a range of emotions during this time. There is no right or wrong way to feel.

People living with mental health problems often find that they find it harder to cope during times of stress. So if you are living with cancer as well or are waiting to start treatment, added worries about the coronavirus pandemic might cause you to struggle more.

Spending more time indoors on your own might make it more difficult to look after your mental health in the ways that you usually do.

Anxiety and depression

Anxiety or depression often starts at the time of diagnosis or when you’re finishing treatment, so if you’re finding it hard to manage, make sure you get the support you need.

Taking care of your mental health will improve the quality of your life. And research shows that for people with some pre-existing mental health conditions, making the most of that support could better your chance of overcoming certain cancers.

Tips

To help support your mental health, you can:

  • check out and make use of available resources - such as a support and information service at the hospital or in the community, patient support groups, cancer charity helplines or online chat forums 
  • allow yourself the time to reflect - keep a journal of your thoughts and feelings and find common patterns of behaviour and focus on the things that you can control or change 
  • think about how you coped in difficult situations before and how that can help you now - such as making art, singing or knitting
  • use mental health apps to support yourself - a variety of apps are available for anxiety, depression or sleeping problems
  • reach out to someone you trust or speak to your GP or healthcare team if you can’t cope - a psychologist can teach you stress management techniques such as breathing, muscle relaxation, meditation, guided imagery, problem solving and coping strategies, hypnosis or mindfulness
Talk to your GP or specialist nurse if you are worried about your mental health.

More information

For more advice and practical tips on a balanced diet, physical activity and mental health, visit the: