Life After Cancer: Diet, Exercise, and Weight

After cancer treatment, eating a healthy diet, staying at a healthy weight, and getting regular physical activity are a vital part of your recovery.

Why diet, exercise, and weight matter after cancer

Good nutrition, exercise, and a healthy weight can help your body recover from cancer. They can also reduce your risk for other problems after treatment. They can help you: 

  • Get stronger. Foods with protein, calcium, vitamins, and minerals can help rebuild muscle and strengthen bone.

  • Fight infection. Many people have a higher risk for infection during and after cancer treatment. Nutritious eating and exercise can boost your immune system.

  • Protect your heart health. Some kinds of cancer treatment can raise your risk for heart disease. Exercise and healthy eating habits may help lower this risk.

  • Lower your risk for diabetes. There may be a link between certain cancer treatments and a higher risk for type 2 diabetes. Keeping a healthy weight, getting regular exercise, and eating well can help lower this risk.

  • Lessen your risk for more cancer. Being overweight increases a person’s risk for many kinds of cancer. For a cancer survivor, it can also increase the risk that of the cancer will come back after treatment. Survivors can go on to develop another, unrelated second cancer, too. Losing weight can help lower this risk. Physical activity can also help lessen the risk for some kinds of cancer.

  • Make you feel less tired. Fatigue is a very common problem after cancer treatment. Regular exercise and a healthy diet may help you feel less tired.

What should you eat?

Follow the nutrition advice of the USDA’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans and Harvard University’s Healthy Eating Plate. They advise you to: 

  • Eat plenty of vegetables and fruits. These have fiber to keep you full and nutrients to keep you healthy.

  • Choose whole grains. They can help lower your cholesterol and keep blood sugar steady.

  • Get healthy protein. Healthy protein comes from poultry, eggs, and fish, plus nuts, seeds, beans, peas, and tofu.

  • Skip unhealthy foods. Limit or avoid foods that are made with refined grains, added sugar, or unhealthy fats.

If you need more help, ask your healthcare provider to refer you to a dietitian. He or she can help you learn eating habits to keep you healthy.

How much exercise should you get?

The experts at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services say that adults should get at least 75 minutes of vigorous physical activity or 150 minutes of moderate physical activity each week. This is about 20 minutes of moderate activity, like taking a brisk walk, each day. If you are just recovering from treatment, this may not be possible at first. Talk with your healthcare team about activities that are safe for you before you start anything. Then start with just a few minutes each day and slowly work your way up to 150 minutes each week. As you get stronger, you can add more. Aim for a mix of aerobic and muscle-strengthening activities.

If you were physically active before cancer, talk with your healthcare provider about how to resume activity. Again, do this before you start exercising.

Your healthcare provider can help you figure out which activities are safest for you, such as: 

  • Exercise classes

  • Gardening

  • Walking

  • Riding a bike

  • Swimming laps or doing a water exercise class

Your provider can also help you figure out how to advance your activity level over time.

What’s a healthy weight?

Some people lose weight during cancer treatment. But many people gain weight, and many people are already overweight when diagnosed with cancer. What’s a healthy weight for you? Talk with your healthcare provider. Ask if weight loss can help you and what your goals should be. Your healthcare provider may be able to tell you about safe ways to lose weight, or help you find support nearby for weight loss if needed.

If you are having trouble

There are many reasons you may struggle with a healthy diet, exercise, and your weight after cancer. For example: 

  • Side effects can make it hard to eat. Treatment can cause side effects that can make it hard to eat, even long after treatment ends. You may have nausea, or a changed sense of taste. Surgery or radiation may have affected the way you chew, swallow, or digest food.

  • You may feel too tired to exercise. Fatigue and overall weakness after cancer treatment can make you not want to exercise.

  • Treatment may affect your weight. Treatment for breast, endometrial, prostate, and other cancers can affect the hormones in your body. In some cases, this can lead to weight gain after treatment and make it hard to maintain a healthy weight.

  • Anxiety or depression can make healthy living feel hard. If you are feeling anxious or depressed, it may feel harder to stick to healthy eating, or to get out and exercise regularly.

If you are having trouble eating, managing your weight, or getting enough exercise, talk with your healthcare provider. He or she can help you figure out ways to get around these problems. Support groups, persistence, changes in medicine, new medicine, and other things can help you stay on track. Be sure to get the advice and help you need to be as healthy as possible after cancer treatment.