Looking after yourself during and after treatment for acute leukaemia (leukemia)

It is important to look after yourself during treatment for acute myeloid leukaemia (AML) or acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL), and while you recover. Some side effects may take weeks or months to improve, especially after intensive treatment. There are things you can do to manage some side effects and to improve your well-being.

We have separate advice on recovering if you had a stem cell transplant.

Your diet

Having treatment for acute leukaemia can weaken your immune system. This means you are more likely to get an infection. Try to avoid possible risks of infection from food. Here are some tips that might help. Your hospital may also give you further advice:

  • eat freshly cooked food
  • avoid reheating food
  • make sure frozen foods are completely defrosted in the fridge, then cook them straight away, following cooking instructions
  • wash salads, fruit and vegetables well.

Ask your doctor or specialist nurse for advice. They may give you a list of foods to avoid, such as raw meat and fish, undercooked eggs and unpasteurised cheese.

When your blood counts recover, you can usually eat a normal diet. Eating a healthy, balanced diet and keeping to a healthy weight may help to:

  • increase your energy levels
  • improve your sense of well-being
  • reduce the risk of new cancers, heart disease, strokes and diabetes.

If you drink alcohol, drinking a lot can slow your recovery. It can increase the risk of bleeding, especially if your platelet count is low. It can also affect how some drugs work. Ask your doctor if it is okay for you to drink alcohol.

We have more information about healthy eating.


Usually, there is no medical reason to stop having sex during treatment for leukaemia. But if your platelets are low, your doctor may advise you to avoid penetrative sex until they recover. You are more likely to bleed if your platelets are low or to get an infection if your neutrophils are low. Your doctor or nurse can give you more information about this.

Leukaemia and its treatment cause physical and emotional changes that can affect your sex life. Side effects may mean you feel too unwell or tired for sex. You may also have changes such as hair loss that affect your body image and self-esteem.

Usually, difficulties slowly improve after treatment. If you have a partner, it can help to talk openly with them about how you feel. You may both need some time to adjust. If changes to your sex life do not improve, your specialist nurse can give you advice or arrange expert support if needed. We have more information about cancer and your sex life.


Even if your treatment is likely to damage your fertility, you may still be able to get pregnant or make someone pregnant. Drugs used to treat leukaemia can be harmful to an unborn baby. You should use contraception during your treatment and for several months after. Ask your doctor or specialist nurse for more information.

Leukaemia cannot be passed on during sex. But small amounts of chemotherapy or other drugs may get into your bodily fluids. This includes vaginal fluid and the fluid that carries sperm (semen). To protect your partner, your doctor may advise that during treatment and for a time after you:

  • use a condom for vaginal or anal sex
  • use a condom or a latex barrier such as a dental dam for oral sex.

This also helps protect you from sexually transmitted infections (STIs). This is important because your treatment can affect how your body fights infections.


Your doctor may advise you to have vaccinations against illnesses such as flu and coronavirus. If you live with other people, your doctor may suggest they also have these vaccinations and keep up with other regular vaccinations. If you had a donor stem cell transplant, you will lose the effect of any vaccinations you had as a child. You will need to have these vaccinations again. Your doctor will advise you about this.

There are some types of vaccines that are not safe to have until your immune system recovers. These are called live vaccines. They include flu vaccines that are given as a spray up the nose. If you have young children, they should not have this type of flu vaccine. This is because it may affect you too. Ask your doctor or specialist nurse for more advice about this or before you have any vaccinations yourself. It is important to get advice from your doctor if you are planning any travel abroad.

Social life

While your white blood cell levels are low, try to avoid crowded places such as cinemas, pubs and public transport. This may help reduce your risk of infections.

How quickly you get back to your full social life may depend on the treatment you had and how your blood cell levels recover. Your doctor or specialist nurse can give you advice and tell you what your full blood count is.

Avoid contact with people who have an infection such as chickenpox, shingles or measles. If you are worried you have had contact with someone with an infectious disease, contact your doctor or specialist nurse.

Holidays and travel

If you are planning to go on holiday, talk to your doctor. For the first few months after treatment, you may still have regular check-ups or clinic appointments at the hospital. You may sometimes need blood or platelet transfusions.

If you had a stem cell transplant, it is best not to plan any holidays until at least 6 months after treatment has finished. Your doctor will usually advise you not to travel abroad in the first year after a transplant, unless there is a cancer treatment centre nearby.

Ask your doctor for advice about travel and any vaccinations you might need. We have more information about travel and cancer, including information about travel insurance.

Keeping physically active

Regular gentle activity, such as walking, is a good way to build up energy levels. It can also help reduce stress and anxiety.

But you will need to build it up gradually and be careful about exercising while your blood count is recovering. If your red blood cells are low (anaemia), you will feel very tired and will need to take things slowly. You will need to avoid swimming and high-impact or contact sports until you are no longer at risk of infection and bleeding. Ask your doctor or nurse about what kind of exercise is suitable for you when your blood count is recovering.


If you smoke, giving up smoking is one of the healthiest decisions you can make. Smoking increases the risk of bone thinning (osteoporosis). It is also a major risk factor for smoking-related cancers and heart disease. Ask your doctor or nurse for advice.

The NHS has a lot of information and support to help you give up smoking. Look on the NHS website for the country where you live.

Going back to work or study

Your doctor or nurse can give you advice about when to start work or study again. It may depend on the treatment you had and how well you are recovering. If you had a stem cell transplant, your doctor or specialist nurse may advise you to wait until your blood count has gone back to normal or almost normal.

When you are ready to go back to work or study, you may want to start part-time and build up gradually. Talk to your employer, occupational health department, teacher or tutor about your plans for returning to work or study. There may be ways they can help.

You can also ask them to talk to the people you work or study with about your illness and treatment before you return. Check that you feel comfortable about the way they plan to do this. We have more information about returning to work.

Finding ways to cope

Leukaemia and its treatment can have a big impact on your life. There may be times when it is all you think about. It can also feel like you have little control over many of the things that are happening.

You may find you want things to be as normal as possible. This can involve staying in contact with friends and doing your usual activities. Or you may decide different things are important to you now and want to make changes.

Find more support

Talk to your doctor, specialist nurse or one of our cancer support specialists about other support that may be available. They may help you find more practical advice, medical information, emotional support or spiritual comfort.

Talk to someone

It can help to share how you are feeling and what is on your mind. There may be a few people you can talk openly to and ask anything. They could be family, friends or colleagues, or someone from a local carers’ or cancer support group.

Find ways to relax

Different things work for different people. Taking time to relax can help you cope with stress and anxiety. We have information about complementary therapies if you find these useful. Remember some complementary therapies may not be suitable if you have leukaemia or are having treatment for leukaemia. It is important to talk to your doctor or specialist nurse before you have any complementary therapy. It is also important to tell your complementary therapist that you have leukaemia.

About our information

  • References

    Below is a sample of the sources used in our acute leukaemia information. If you would like more information about the sources we use, please contact us at cancerinformationteam@macmillan.org.uk

    Heuser M et al. Acute myeloid leukaemia in adult patients: ESMO Clinical Practice Guidelines for diagnosis, treatment and follow-up. Annals of Oncology, 2020, vol 3, issue 6. Available from www.esmo.org/ [accessed 2021].

    NICE (National Institute for Health and Care Excellence). Blood and bone marrow cancers. Available from https://pathways.nice.org.uk/pathways/blood-and-bone-marrow-cancers [accessed August 2021]. 

    Phelan K and Advani A. Novel therapies in acute lymphoblastic leukemia. Current Hematologic Malignancy Reports. 2018.

  • Reviewers

    This information has been written, revised and edited by Macmillan Cancer Support’s Cancer Information Development team. It has been reviewed by expert medical and health professionals and people living with cancer. It has been approved by Senior Medical Editor, Dr Anne Parker, Consultant Haematologist.

    Our cancer information has been awarded the PIF TICK. Created by the Patient Information Forum, this quality mark shows we meet PIF’s 10 criteria for trustworthy health information.

The language we use

We want everyone affected by cancer to feel our information is written for them.

We want our information to be as clear as possible. To do this, we try to:

  • use plain English
  • explain medical words
  • use short sentences
  • use illustrations to explain text
  • structure the information clearly
  • make sure important points are clear.

We use gender-inclusive language and talk to our readers as ‘you’ so that everyone feels included. Where clinically necessary we use the terms ‘men’ and ‘women’ or ‘male’ and ‘female’. For example, we do so when talking about parts of the body or mentioning statistics or research about who is affected.

You can read more about how we produce our information here.

Date reviewed

Reviewed: 01 March 2022
Next review: 01 March 2025
Trusted Information Creator - Patient Information Forum
Trusted Information Creator - Patient Information Forum

Our cancer information meets the PIF TICK quality mark.

This means it is easy to use, up-to-date and based on the latest evidence. Learn more about how we produce our information.