Eating well and keeping active

After a cancer diagnosis, many people find that following a healthy, balanced diet and staying active helps give them back a sense of control.

Healthy eating

After a cancer diagnosis, many people find making the decision to follow a healthy, balanced diet helps give them back a sense of control. It can also help you feel that you are doing the best for your health.

Eating well and keeping to a healthy weight will help you keep up your strength, increase your energy levels and improve your sense of well-being.

After cancer treatment, some people have a higher risk of other health problems, including diabetes, heart disease or osteoporosis (bone thinning). If you have been told that you may be at an increased risk of any of these conditions, it is especially important to follow a healthy diet to help prevent them.

Before making changes to your diet, it can help to talk to a dietitian, your GP or a specialist nurse. This may be especially useful if you have any special dietary requirements or medical needs.

We have more information about healthy eating and cancer.

Staying active

When you are living with or after cancer, becoming more active can be a positive change to make in your life.

Being active before, during and after treatment can:

You might be nervous about starting and building up your activity, especially if you have not been active for a while. You may worry that you are too tired, do not know how to start or do not know what is best for you to do.

You may also be concerned about injuring yourself. But even a little physical activity is better than none at all. It can help you feel less stressed and lift your spirits if you are feeling low. It will also help you feel more in control, because you are doing something positive for yourself.

Being active before treatment

If you know you are going to have surgery, your doctor might encourage you to start some physical activity before the operation. This is to help improve your general fitness level. It can also help with your recovery after surgery.

Being active before treatment starts can help prepare your body for treatment. This may mean you have fewer side effects, or that they are less severe. It can also help you feel better in yourself.

Some people have to start treatment straight away. But if you don’t, physical activity will help you prepare for future treatment.

Getting started

You may need to be careful with the activities you choose. This will depend on the cancer, your treatment, its side effects and any other medical conditions you have. Your doctor or specialist nurse can give you advice.

Chemotherapy, radiotherapy or recent surgery can affect the type of activity that is safe for you. For example, chemotherapy increases your risk of infection. If your white cells are low, your doctor may advise you to avoid pools or gyms. If you have long term treatment effects, such as lymphoedema or nerve damage, you will also need advice on what is safe.

Living with cancer exercise ideas

There is no one activity that is best for everyone. Choose activities you enjoy and that fit in with your life. If possible, do a mix of activities that improve your aerobic fitness, strength and flexibility.

In the UK, adults are advised to include different activities and do at least 2½ hours (150 minutes) of physical activity a week.

Choose activities you enjoy and, if possible, do a mix of activities. Some examples include the following:

  • Aerobic exercises

    Walking, gardening, dancing, running and jogging, cycling or swimming are good for heart health.

  • Resistance and strength exercises

    Lifting small weights or ‘sit to stand’ exercises that you can do at home – help strengthen muscle.

  • Flexibility exercises

    Stretches, yoga, tai chi or qi gong can improve suppleness.

  • Balance exercises

    Yoga, tai chi, pilates and qi gong can help with balance and strength.

It is important to get advice before you start becoming more active. Your cancer doctor, GP or specialist nurse can tell you what type of exercise is most appropriate for you. You can also get support from a physiotherapist or an occupational therapist.

Tips for getting started include joining a walking group, playing a sport or encouraging your friends and family to join you. Setting yourself realistic targets and keeping a record of your progress will help you to stay active.

Staying active with Macmillan's Move More online exercise programme

Macmillan has developed an exercise programme for people living with cancer that will help keep you active. You can use these videos to get you started.

Warm up

The warm up helps to get your body ready for exercise. This video has a series of exercises to warm up your muscles and get your blood flowing.

 

Cardiovascular

Cardiovascular exercises work the heart and lungs. The exercises in this video can help give you more energy and make everyday activities easier to do.

 

Strength and endurance

Strength and endurance exercises can improve the strength and tone of your muscles. The exercises in this video can also improve your body composition and increase lean muscle mass. This makes it easier to do everyday activities.

 

Cool down

The cool down helps reduce the chance of your muscles feeling sore after exercising. The stretching exercises in this video also improve your range of movement and flexibility.

Move More Northern Ireland

The Move More team in Northern Ireland have developed some home-based workouts to help people living with cancer stay active.

They regularly post new videos to their YouTube channel so that anyone can them do from home.

TopMedTalk & Macmillan Cancer Support | Get active and feel good?

Macmillan have worked with TopMedTalk to develop a series of podcasts. These are to support people with cancer during the coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis. In this episode we talk about the benefits of exercise for people living with cancer.

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About our information

  • References

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

    Fang X et al. Quantitative association between body mass index and the risk of cancer: A global Meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies. International Journal of Cancer. 2018 Oct 1;143(7):1595-1603.

    British Nutrition Foundation website www.nutrition.org.uk (accessed December 2019).

    Bhaskaran K et al. Body-mass index and risk of 22 specific cancers: a population-based cohort study of 5·24 million UK adults. The Lancet, August 2014..

    The Eatwell Guide: Helping you eat a healthy, balanced diet, Food Standard Scotland, October 2019.



  • 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 Chief Medical Editor, Professor Tim Iveson, Consultant Medical Oncologist.

    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.