Looking after yourself

Monday 31 October, 2011

  This information is about early breast cancer, for other types of breast cancer, visit Cancer Australia's website, or call 13 11 20. See also our genetics and breast cancer, breast reconstruction and prosthesis, breast cancer trials or breast health pages.

On this page: Healthy eating | Being active | Relationships with others | Complementary therapies | Sexuality, intimacy and cancer | Changing body image | My Journey Kit | Information reviewed by

Cancer can cause physical and emotional strain. Eating well, exercising and relaxing may help reduce stress and improve well-being. Addressing changes in your emotions and relationships early on is also very important.

Healthy eating

Eating nutritious food will help you to keep as well as possible and cope with cancer and treatment side effects. A dietitian can help you to plan the best foods for your situation. Helpline can send you information about nutrition and cancer.

Being active

You will probably find it helpful to stay active and to exercise regularly if you can. Physical activity – even if gentle or for a short duration – helps to improve circulation, reduce tiredness and elevate mood. The amount and type of exercise you choose to do will depend on what you are used to, how well you feel and what your doctor advises.

You can make small changes to your daily activities if you aren’t used to exercise or haven’t exercised for a while. If you have had one or both of your breasts removed, your medical team may help you do arm exercises to help you recover and prevent lymphoedema. Ask your medical team what is best for you.

Relationships with others

The strong emotions you experience as a result of cancer may affect your relationships. Your experiences may cause you to make some changes in your life or develop a new outlook on your values, priorities and life in general. Sharing those thoughts and feelings with your family, friends and work colleagues may strengthen your relationships.

If you feel uncomfortable talking about your feelings, take your time and approach others when you are ready. People usually appreciate insight into how you are feeling and guidance on providing support during and after treatment.

While you are giving yourself time to adjust to cancer, do the same for your friends and family. Everyone will react in a different way – by putting on a happy face, playing down your anxiety, or even ignoring you. They are also adjusting in their own way to changes.

YWCA Encore program

YWCA Encore is a free eight-week information and exercise program for women who have had breast cancer treatment. Using floor and pool exercises, the program strengthens and tones your arms, shoulders and chest, helps you regain mobility and improves your general fitness. To find out more call 1800 305 150 or visit www.ywcaencore.org.au.

Complementary therapies

Complementary therapies are treatments that may help you cope better with side effects such as pain. They may also increase your sense of control over what is happening to you, decrease your stress and anxiety, and improve your mood.

There are many types of complementary therapies, including acupuncture, massage, relaxation, meditation and herbal medicine. While some cancer treatment centres offer complementary therapies as part of their services, you may have to go to a private practitioner. Self-help CDs or DVDs can also guide you through some different techniques.

Let your doctor know about any complementary therapies you are using or thinking about trying. Some therapies may not be appropriate, depending on your conventional treatment. For example, herbs and nutritional supplements may interact with your medication, resulting in harmful side effects.

Massage, acupuncture and exercise therapies may also need to be modified if you have lowered immunity, low platelets or fragile bones. Call Cancer Council Helpline 13 11 20 for more information and resources about complementary therapies.

Alternative therapies are commonly defined as those used instead of conventional treatments. These therapies may be harmful if people with cancer delay or stop using conventional treatments in favour of them. Examples include high-dose vitamin supplements, coffee enemas and magnet therapy.

Sexuality, intimacy and cancer

Having cancer can affect your sexuality in both physical and emotional ways. The impact of these changes depends on many factors, such as treatment and side effects, the way you and your partner communicate, and your self-confidence. Knowing the potential challenges and addressing them will help you adjust to these changes.

Some people with cancer have the support of a partner, while others do not. If you meet a new partner during or after cancer treatment, it can be difficult to talk about cancer with them, particularly if it has had an impact on your sexuality.

Sexual intercourse may not always be possible during and after treatment, but closeness and sharing are vital to a healthy relationship. Call 13 11 20 for more information, including a free booklet about sexuality and intimacy.

Changing body image

Cancer treatment can change the way you feel about yourself (your self-esteem). You may feel less confident about who you are and what you can do. This is common whether your body has changed physically or not.

Give yourself time to adapt to any changes. Try to see yourself as a whole person instead of focusing only on the parts of you that have changed. For practical suggestions about hair loss, weight changes and other physical changes, call the Helpline.

Illustration of women in the Look Good Feel Better ProgramLook Good… Feel Better program

This free program teaches techniques to help restore appearance and selfesteem during treatment. Call 1800 650 960 or visit www.lgfb.org.au.

Using a breast prosthesis

Many women who have a mastectomy choose to wear a breast prosthesis (breast form). This is a synthetic breast or part of a breast that appears real when worn in a bra or under clothing. Most breast prostheses are made from silicone and have the shape and feel of a natural breast. Weighted prostheses can help you maintain good balance and posture.

You may wear a temporary, soft breast form in the first couple of months after surgery, until being fitted for a silicone form. A free bra and soft temporary breast form is available through Breast Cancer Network Australia. To order a My Care Kit, talk to your breast care nurse or treatment team.

More information on how to buy a breast form and what to expect at a fitting is available from the Cancer Council. Call 13 11 20 to talk to a Helpline consultant.


If you lose your hair during chemotherapy treatment, you may want to wear a wig, scarf or hat while it’s growing back. You can borrow a wig – some hospitals and cancer care units have wig libraries where wigs are free or available for a small fee.

You can also buy a wig, though some types can be expensive. Ask your treating hospital or call the Cancer Council Helpline to find out more. Some private health funds cover part of the cost of purchasing wigs – check with your health fund.

My Journey Kit

Breast Cancer Network Australia’s My Journey Kit contains information, resources and tips for women newly diagnosed with breast cancer.

The My Journey Kit contains an information guide about breast cancer and a personal record book for writing down treatment details. This can help you keep track of your appointments. The kit also contains a copy of Cancer Australia’s Guide for Women with Early Breast Cancer booklet.

The My Journey Kit is free, and it can be ordered online or by calling 1800 500 258.

Information reviewed by: Professor John Boyages, Executive Director, Westmead Breast Cancer Institute, Westmead Hospital and author, Breast Cancer: Taking Control; Lynn Buglar, Breast Physician, BreastScreen NSW; Bronwyn Chalmers, Cancer Information Consultant, Helpline, Cancer Council NSW; Susan Munro, McGrath Breast Care Nurse, Community Health/Wagga Wagga Base Hospital, Wagga Wagga; and Kathryn Rutkowski, Consumer.  

Updated: 31 Oct, 2011