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 physically active during and after cancer treatment can be a positive change in your life.

Being active before, during and after treatment is safe. It can:

There is also a small amount of evidence to suggest physical activity may help improve memory.

You might be nervous about starting a physical activity plan, especially if you were not very active before your cancer treatment.

You may worry that you are too tired or that you might injure yourself. But research shows that even a little activity is better than no activity at all. As you start to feel more confident, you can slowly build up the amount of physical activity you do.

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
  • any other medical conditions you have.

Your doctor or specialist nurse can give you advice.

Chemotherapyradiotherapy 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 activities are safe for you.

Living with cancer exercise ideas

There are lots of ways you can become more active. It is important to do something you enjoy that also fits in with your life.

If possible, try to do a mix of activities that improve your aerobic fitness, balance, strength and flexibility.

The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) advises that healthy adults do one of the following every week:

  • At least 2½ hours (150 minutes) of moderate-intensity activity.
  • At least 1¼ hours (75 minutes) of vigorous-intensity aerobic activity.
  • At least 1¼ hours (75 minutes) using a combination of both moderate and vigorous aerobic activity.

Some examples include the following:

  • Aerobic exercises

    Walking briskly, gardening, dancing, running and jogging, cycling, swimming, sports and some daily activities are good for your heart and cardiovascular system.

  • Muscular strength exercises

    Lifting light weights or doing simple resistance exercises such as moving from sitting to standing using a chair, or press-ups against a wall, can help strengthen muscles, bones and joints.

  • Flexibility exercises

    Simple stretching exercises, yoga, tai chi and qi gong can help improve flexibility.

  • Balance exercises

    Yoga, tai chi, Pilates, body balance and qi gong can help increase balance and strength.

We have more information on types of physical activity.

Remember, you can ask for advice from your cancer specialist or GP if you have any questions about becoming more active. They may refer you to an exercise specialist or physiotherapist.

Tips for getting started include joining a walking group or exercise class, playing a sport or encouraging your friends and family to join you. Setting 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 do them 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.