Coronavirus and cancer

We know it’s a worrying time for people with cancer, we have information to help. If you have symptoms of cancer contact your doctor.

Read our information about coronavirus and cancer

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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 eating a balanced diet, staying physically active and looking after your mental wellbeing.

What you can do

There are three things that you can do to feel more in control of your health when you’re living with cancer or waiting to start treatment during the coronavirus pandemic. Try to:

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

If you get support early and live as healthily as possible, you are more likely to:

  • cope better with cancer treatment
  • have fewer side effects
  • have better long term health

Eat a balanced diet

Why eating and drinking a balanced diet is important

A balanced diet means eating foods from all the food groups that your body needs.

Eating and drinking 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

So, eating and drinking well can help you to cope better and recover faster. This could improve your chance of survival.

A balanced diet, with plenty of calories, also helps your immune system to work well. A healthy immune system can help you to fight off infections and kill cancer cells.

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 of the plate below is a guide to how much you should eat from each food group for a healthy balanced diet. This comes from guidance from Public Health England (PHE).

Diagram of Food plate

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

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.

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.

Talk to your GP or specialist nurse if you have problems that stop you from being physically active.

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.

It is important that you take extra care of yourself during this time. Get all the support you can and reach out to others.

Research on some cancers shows that if you get support with your mental health early, you are more likely to cope better with cancer treatment. It might also help you to recover better and live life as fully as you can before, during and after treatment.

Talk to your GP or specialist nurse if you are worried about your mental health.

Other resources

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

Information and help