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Living well after cancer


Looking after yourself and others


It’s important to look after your wellbeing after cancer treatment. For some people, this may mean making big lifestyle changes and embracing new health practices. For other people, it may be a small increase in exercise or a healthier diet.

Coming up with a plan for how to look after yourself can help restore a sense of control. Research suggests that a healthy lifestyle (in combination with conventional treatment) can stop or slow the development of many cancers.

Some people who have had cancer may be at an increased risk of other health problems, such as heart disease, osteoporosis, stroke or type 2 diabetes. The lifestyle changes recommended for cancer prevention can also help reduce your risk of developing other health problems.

Reducing your risk of recurrence

There are several ways you can adapt your lifestyle to help reduce the risk of cancer coming back or a new cancer developing. 

Quit smoking

Smoking is the biggest preventable cause of cancer. It increases the risk of developing many types of cancer, including lung, bowel, ovarian, bladder, kidney, liver, oesophageal, pancreatic and stomach cancers.

If you smoke, we strongly recommend that you quit. Stopping smoking has been shown to increase your expected survival time and reduce your risk of developing another type of cancer. Choosing to quit smoking at any age will benefit your health. It can also improve your ability to be more physically active and help reduce alcohol consumption, both of which can help you maintain a healthy weight.

Research is continuing into the health effects of e-cigarettes. However, there is growing evidence that it is not safe to use them as they contain a range of substances that have been shown to be harmful to people’s health.

Many people who smoke find it hard to stop. Seek support and don’t be put off if it takes several attempts before you’re able to quit for good. Call Quitline on 13 7848 or speak to your doctor.

Be SunSmart

Skin cancer is the most common cancer in Australia and one of the most preventable. Most skin cancers are caused by exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) radiation. Using sun protection will reduce your risk of skin cancer. It’s also important to check your skin regularly and to ask your doctor how often you need a full skin check.

Other SunSmart behaviour you should follow includes:

  • Slip on clothing  wear clothing that covers your shoulders, neck, arms, legs and body. 
  • Slop on sunscreen use an SPF 30 or higher broad-spectrum water-resistant sunscreen. 
  • Slap on a hat  wear a hat that shades your face, neck and ears.
  • Slide on sunglasses – protect your eyes with sunglasses that meet the Australian Standard.
  • Seek shade – use shade from trees, umbrellas, buildings or any type of canopy. 
  • Check daily sun protection times  check the recommended sun protection times in your local area.

UV radiation from the sun causes skin cancer, but it is also the best source of vitamin D, which is needed for healthy bones. The body can absorb only a limited amount of vitamin D at a time. Getting more sun than recommended does not increase your vitamin D levels, but it does increase your skin cancer risk. 

People who’ve had skin cancer have a higher risk of developing more skin cancers. Talk to your doctor about how to protect your skin from the sun, check for new skin cancers, and maintain your vitamin D levels.

Be a healthy body weight

Some cancer treatments can affect your weight. People often expect to lose weight during cancer treatment, but for many people it can have the opposite effect. Weight gained during cancer treatment can be difficult to lose because of fatigue and other challenges.

Whether you have lost or gained weight, it is important to work towards a healthy weight. Being overweight or obese is a risk factor for many types of cancer (including cancer of the bowel, kidney, pancreas, oesophagus, uterus, liver and breast), heart disease and diabetes.

Keeping your weight within the healthy range can help reduce the risk of cancer recurrence and improve survival. The health risk associated with your body weight can be estimated using your waist measurement and body mass index (BMI).

Be physically active and sit less

Physical activity is a broad term that covers any activity that moves your body and increases your breathing and heart rate. Physical activity has a range of benefits for cancer survivors. It can:

  • reduce the risk of some cancers (but not all) coming back, including breast, bowel and endometrial (uterine) cancers
  • help prevent weight gain – being overweight or obese is a risk factor for many cancers
  • help with recovery from treatment (rehabilitation) by increasing energy levels, improving sleep, increasing muscle strength, improving mobility and balance, relieving stress, and decreasing fatigue, anxiety and depression
  • reduce the risk of developing other health problems, such as heart disease, osteoporosis and type 2 diabetes.

Once cancer treatment is finished and you return to your usual day-to-day activities, aim to be as physically active as your abilities allow. Before taking part in any exercise program, it is important to talk to your specialist or GP about any precautions you should take. Ask about the amount and type of exercise that is right for you.

Your doctor may refer you to an exercise physiologist or physiotherapist to develop an exercise program to meet your specific needs. 

Drink less alcohol

Drinking alcohol increases the risk of developing some cancers, including cancer of the mouth and throat, oesophagus, bowel, stomach, liver and breast. Even drinking small amounts of alcohol can increase cancer risk, and the risk increases with every drink.

Alcohol contains a lot of energy (kilojoules or calories), so it can contribute to weight gain. Drinking alcohol also increases the risk of other diseases, such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes.

We recommend you limit how much you drink to reduce your cancer risk. If you choose to drink alcohol, stick to the National Health and Medical Research Council guidelines and have no more than 10 standard drinks a week and no more than 4 standard drinks in one day. One standard drink has 10 grams of alcohol, but remember that drinks served at home and bars are often more than a standard drink.

Eat well

It is important to eat a balanced diet from the five food groups – fruit, vegetables and legumes, wholegrains, meat (or alternatives) and dairy (or alternatives). Limit foods containing saturated fat, added salt and added sugars, and avoid sugary drinks.

Treatment for some cancers can affect how you eat, swallow, digest food and absorb essential nutrients. You may need to try different foods and ways of eating to find out what works for you.

A dietitian can help tailor an eating plan to manage any ongoing issues. They can also provide advice about suitable nutritional supplements to help maintain your strength.

It may take time and support to adapt to your new way of eating. You may feel self-conscious or worry about eating in public or with friends. These reactions are natural. It may help to talk about how you feel with your family and friends, your GP, a counsellor or someone who has been through a similar experience

 

Impact on family and friends

After treatment is over, your family and friends may also need time to adjust. Research shows that carers can also have high levels of distress, even when treatment has finished.

Your cancer diagnosis may make people around you think about their own priorities and goals. And, like you, they may be concerned about the cancer coming back.

People close to you can have a range of reactions when your cancer treatment ends. They may feel:

  • relieved that you’re okay
  • convinced that everything will go straight back to normal for you
  • happy to focus on others and themselves again
  • confused, especially if your relationship has changed
  • upset that they are not in regular contact with the health care team
  • pleased that cancer is no longer the main topic of conversation
  • worried about what the future holds
  • afraid that every little ache or pain means that the cancer has returned
  • scared they will get cancer themselves
  • a need to protect you and not let you do things for yourself.

Looking after others

After treatment finishes, your family and friends may not fully understand what you’ve been through. Let them know that you understand it is hard for them as well. You may want to tell them how much you appreciate all they have already done to help you. If you still need support, let them know how it would be best for them to provide it. 

Encourage your family and friends to seek support. They can call our compassionate cancer nurses on 13 11 20 or Carer Gateway on 1800 422 737. 

More information for carers

Coping with children's needs

Like many adults, children may struggle with the changes to family life after a cancer diagnosis. They may worry about the future or find it difficult to understand why life can’t go back to the way it was.

Talking to children about cancer can be difficult. Children’s reactions and needs will vary depending on their age. But most young people find honest discussions reassuring.

You may find the following tips helpful:

  • Try to be as open and honest as possible.
  • Acknowledge the impact of cancer on your family. This is particularly important for teenagers.
  • Depending on the age and understanding of the children, talk to them about your fears (e.g. anxiety before a follow-up visit). This may encourage children to talk about their own fears.
  • Be open about how you feel, so the children understand if you’re not bouncing back. 
  • Spend time together doing things they enjoy.
  • Explain any changes made to your family’s lifestyle. Let your children know if these are going to be permanent.

You may want to listen to our 'Explaining cancer to kids' episode of The Thing About Cancer podcastCanteen can help young people aged 12–25 cope with life after a cancer diagnosis in the family. 

Family history and cancer risk

If you’ve had cancer, it doesn’t mean that your children will also get it. Most cancers are caused by a build-up of abnormal cells. These cell changes cannot be passed on to your children, so they won’t have a higher than normal risk of developing cancer.

However, having a strong family history of cancer may increase the risk of developing some cancers. This may be caused by inheriting a faulty gene linked to cancer, or by shared environmental or lifestyle factors.

A family history of cancer means that there are a number of closely related family members diagnosed with the same cancer or with more than one cancer, often at a younger age. Only about 5% of all cancers are linked to inherited faulty genes. If you are concerned about this, talk to your doctor. They may refer you to a family cancer clinic or genetic counselling service.

Living Well After Cancer

Download our Living Well After Cancer booklet to learn more.

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Expert content reviewers:

Prof Michael Jefford, Medical Oncologist and Director, Australian Cancer Survivorship Centre, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, VIC; Lucy Bailey, Nurse Counsellor, Cancer Council Queensland; Philip Bullas, Consumer; Dr Kate Gunn, Clinical Psychologist and Senior Research Fellow, Department of Rural Health, University of South Australia, SA; Rosemerry Hodgkin, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council WA; Prof David Joske, Clinical Haematologist, Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital and Clinical Professor of Medicine, The University of Western Australia, WA; Kim Kerin-Ayres, Clinical Nurse Consultant, Cancer Survivorship, Concord Hospital, NSW; Sally Littlewood, Physiotherapist, Seymour Health, VIC; Georgina Lohse, Social Worker, GV Health, VIC; Melanie Moore, Exercise Physiologist and Clinical Supervisor, University of Canberra Cancer Wellness Clinic, ACT; June Savva, Senior Clinician Dietitian, Nutrition and Dietetics, Monash Cancer Centre, Monash Health, VIC; Dr Elysia Thornton-Benko, Specialist General Practitioner and Research Fellow, University of New South Wales, NSW; Prof Janette Vardy, Medical Oncologist, Concord Cancer Centre and Professor of Cancer Medicine, The University of Sydney, NSW; Lyndell Wills, Consumer.

Page last updated:

The information on this webpage was adapted from Living well after cancer - A guide for people with cancer, their families and friends (2021 edition). This webpage was last updated in May 2022.

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