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.
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.
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 introduced 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.
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.
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.