Many doctors encourage their patients with cancer to engage in physical activity during treatment because of the associated benefits, including improved sleep, reduced stress and the alleviation of some treatment symptoms. Similarly, eating a healthy and balanced diet is important, especially during treatment where maintaining a healthy weight and providing sustenance for your body is of critical importance.
All of the women we spoke with had different experiences and preferences when it came to physical activity and diet – some found it easier than others to comply with such recommendations. However, almost all of them agreed that engaging in physical activity and/or eating healthy was important throughout their treatment and healing process.
Although many of the women we spoke to did engage in some form of physical activity, some found it difficult to exercise because of their fatigue. Malika for example, said she was too tired and often ended up just staying at home.
If you can’t do them as energetically as you did, do them a little less. That’s why I say go to the gym, exercise, and if you don’t like going to gyms, walk. Women run, they run before, during and after treatment. I just don’t think you should just stop dead. I mean, if you just stop everything you’re doing, that’s not going to make the cancer go away. It’s there, it’s being treated.
Walking was a primary form of physical activity for many of the women we spoke to. Many walked on a daily basis and were sometimes supported by friends and family who accompanied them. Jeanette walked her dog every day and although sometimes she felt that her dog was dragging her along, she found that walking made a big difference for her. Other forms of exercise that women engaged in were yoga, Pilates, playing with grandchildren and home or gym-based exercises and classes. And Margaret became member of a Dragon Boat group specifically for women with cancer, which she loved.
But it was not keeping me from working out because that is where I vented. I am telling myself: “I am here to vent.” But I had so much pain in my legs and I was also out of breath because of the cortisone, but I was still able to work out. I said: “I must keep moving. This is what is important. I must keep moving to vent.” But that is where I was venting. When I told to the oncologist, he said: “What kind of exercise are you doing?” I said: “I do anything but I am careful with my arm because it was still weak.” But I said: “I am trying to keep moving, to stay active.” He replied: “It is ok.” You know, it was ok.
For less experienced exercisers, finding easy ways to start or engage was helpful, such as working out with a support group, going to a special class for cancer patients, or getting exercises from their doctor. Malika found information on the internet about exercise and did this at home. Patricia and Margaret participated in an exercise program organized by their cancer centre and enjoyed the support from other women diagnosed with breast cancer. Some added benefits of exercise that we heard about were increased energy, better mobility and strength, reduced back pain, and attaining and maintaining a healthy weight. Shelley for example, described working hard to get back the range of motion she had prior to surgery. She feels that she needs to continue doing exercise to maintain her mobility. Women also mentioned that exercise was one of the ways to prevent the development of lymphedema.
The majority of the women we interviewed spoke about the different sorts of changes that they made to improve their regular diet during treatment. Some even maintained healthy choices and changes after the completion of their treatments. Examples of such changes included eliminating or reducing the consumption of sugars, breads, red meat and saturated fats, and increasing the intake of fruits and vegetables, chicken and fish. The idea of taking care of and helping to heal one's body were the main reasons women adopted a healthier diet or introduce changes. Some spoke about the intention to change and eat healthier but that they had not yet been able to implement all the changes, mostly because they felt tired and too busy with the treatment. Women also spoke about the fact that they had been leading a healthy life already before the diagnosis and only made some minor changes. Donna, who was previously vegetarian, actually began eating meat when diagnosed with her cancer. She now ate chicken and fish for example, because she did not feel that she was consuming enough protein to replenish her body. Nalie and Samantha also felt that changing their diet was one of the things they could control throughout their treatment and recovery.
Interviewer: Did you change your diet after your diagnosis?
It’s been many years that I am… because I followed the… because I was obese and I followed the Weight Watchers diet. That’s about it. This is what I eat.
While some received information from their doctors about diet and exercise, others felt that they did not receive sufficient guidance in this area. Tina felt it was odd that she was offered a lot of unhealthy food options in the place she was staying while receiving radiotherapy treatments. Many women used the Internet to better inform themselves on healthy options and to learn from other cancer patients' previous experience.
No I didn’t do any complimentary treatment, but if there was one thing that I knew I had control over it was what I ate and so like I said, I completely cut alcohol. They said that we were allowed to, according to the chemotherapy guidelines of what you can and cannot do. It said that I could have some, if I wanted to have one drink.
I started doing some research on nutrition. What must I eat? What I musn't eat? We must eat more vegetables, fruits, but we needed to do research. It wasn’t easy because the doctors do not give all the information. They need to be trained at this level.
Women spoke about two quite popular fads in cancer nutrition that they thought were beneficial – juicing and drinking smoothies. These were especially helpful for women who needed to consume more nutrients, calories and greens, such as kale and spinach, and who sometimes felt too nauseous to eat a normal meal. Many were surprised at how much they enjoyed these drinks, especially given the green and sometimes unappetizing colours. Although Shelley recognized the importance of a healthy diet, she stressed the importance of a balanced diet and did not begrudge herself junk food when she craved it.
More to the fruit and vegetables. Yeah, I still have a hankering every once in a while for red meat but, we talk about balanced diets. I’ve talked to nutritionists, I’ve read many books on the benefits of a vegetarian diet or the whole grain diets. There’s so many different avenues.
Yes, I did a lot of research on that too. I actually had tried to stop eating meat and I did for probably about 2 months but it was really hard when I was doing the chemo. Once I started the chemo, it was really hard because I was always nauseous, and it was hard to get the right proteins and stuff that would last long and so I wasn’t able to keep that up. But, on the Internet, there’s a lot of research from pretty respective areas that say that maybe red meat might not be the best to eat, so I try to stick to chicken and fish etc. I’m a little healthier, it’s hard with kids, but not as much sugar, not as much white flour, refined flours and stuff like that. But everything feels like it takes an extra effort to do.It feels like you’re in a pool and you’re walking, but the steps are really hard, and to swing your arms under water is that much harder and that’s what it feels like a lot of times. That everything is weighted down, so to do anything, takes more effort than it would normally.
I feel like I’m on a path. I don’t know if I’ve changed very much yet. I’m determined to live a healthier active lifestyle. If you do some reading, they say, keeping your optimal weight, keeping active are two big, big things in lowering the risk of having the cancer come back. I’m not living that as much as I would like right now, but, I would like to think that’s the chemo that’s preventing me, but we’ll see. Hopefully I will change my life in that way for the better.