Healthy Living After Cancer

Approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 07/2021

As cancer treatment ends, it is important to gather information about how to maintain and improve your health. Your cancer care team can help you do this. Research shows that making lifestyle changes during and after cancer treatment can help prevent a recurrence or a second cancer. Healthy living can also prevent or control other health problems, including:

  • Excess weight

  • Heart problems, such as congestive heart failure

  • Thinning of the bones and bone breaks (osteoporosis)

  • High blood pressure (hypertension)

  • High cholesterol

  • Diabetes

There are many ways you can improve your health and quality of life. Start by making small changes that can help you feel better and improve your health. Below are some examples of things you can do. Talk with your health care team about these and other healthy lifestyle decisions.

Healthy eating after cancer treatment

You can build back your strength after cancer treatment by eating a balanced diet of unprocessed, low-fat foods. Healthy eating can also reduce your risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, excess weight, and diabetes.

Experts generally recommend eating a diet that mostly comes from plants. This includes vegetables, fruits, and whole grains. Lean protein, such as chicken and fish, and low-fat dairy products are also recommended. Avoid highly processed foods, such as packaged foods. Also avoid red meat and processed meats, such as lunchmeats and bacon, as much as possible. It is also important to stay hydrated by drinking enough water and other liquids.

Everyone's nutrition needs are different, so you may want to talk to a registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN) about the best eating plan for you. This is especially important if you are experiencing side effects that make it more difficult to eat, such as mouth sores or problems with digestion.

Learn more about the effect of diet and nutrition during and after treatment.

Regular physical activity after cancer treatment

Exercise is an important part of healthy living. Being physically active during and after cancer treatment can help:

  • Reduce anxiety and fatigue

  • Improve self-esteem

  • Improve heart health

  • Maintain a healthy weight

  • Boost muscle strength and endurance

  • Increase positive feelings

Tiredness, fatigue, sleeping problems, or other side effects of treatment can keep you from being active. It can be helpful to talk with a certified health and fitness professional. You can find one through the website of the American College of Sports Medicine or asking at the center where you received treatment.

It can be daunting to start regular physical activity if this is not something you have done in the past or if you have not exercised in a long time. Know that any level of movement is better than none. Here are some tips to help you get started:

Start small. Start with 10 minutes of walking a day or another light exercise. Slowly build up to more physical activity.

Add more movement to daily activities. Exercise can be more than going to the gym or going for a run. You can add exercise to your everyday activities and chores. For example, you can walk places instead of driving, take stairs instead of an elevator, and park far away from the entrance to a store.

Exercise while doing other activities. Watch TV, listen to music, or read a book while exercising.

Find support from others. Work out with a friend or neighbor, take group exercise classes, or work out with a personal trainer.

Exercise when you have the most energy. Fatigue can make it hard to exercise. Plan your exercise around the times of day when you have the most energy.

Get more tips on physical activity, and remember to talk with your health care team before starting an exercise program.

A combination of a healthy diet and regular exercise can help you maintain your weight. Maintaining a healthy weight has been shown to help survivors of breast, prostate, and colorectal cancers, and possibly other types, live longer, healthier lives. Learn more about body weight and cancer risk.

Coping with difficult emotions after cancer treatment

Stress, anxiety, depression, fear of recurrence, or other strong emotions can affect your recovery. They can slow down your recovery and make it harder to maintain a healthy lifestyle. They can also cause new physical problems, like sleep problems, stomach problems, and headaches.

Writing, exercise, spending time outside, and practicing relaxation techniques can help you cope with emotions. It is also important to make time for fun. Get together with friends, watch a movie, or walk the dog. Laughter can reduce stress and improve your mood. Learn more about how to manage your emotions.

If your mental health is affecting your physical health, talk with your health care team about finding additional support. It might help to connect with other survivors in a support group or do one-on-one counseling with a professional. It is also important to go to your follow-up care appointments. Regular checkups can be reassuring and may reduce uncertainty about your health.

Follow-up care after cancer treatment

An important part of healthy living after cancer treatment is your follow-up care. After cancer treatment ends, you will have regular health care visits. At these visits, your health care team will check for a recurrence of the cancer and secondary cancer. They will also manage any long-term side effects and monitor your overall health.

Your health care team will work with you to create a personalized follow-up care plan. This is called your survivorship care plan. It is important to follow this plan. Sometimes, getting tests and scans at these appointments can cause anxiety. This is called "scanxiety." Learn more about how to cope with scanxiety in a video with an ASCO expert.

Avoid risk factors

A cancer risk factor is anything that increases a person's chance of getting cancer. After you finish cancer treatment, it is important to continue to avoid risk factors. Some changes you can make include:

Stopping tobacco use. Stopping tobacco use, even after a cancer diagnosis, can improve your recovery and overall health. Recent research shows that no matter when you quit, you can see a benefit for your health. You should also avoid secondhand smoke.

Protecting your skin from the sun. Prevent skin cancer by using a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher every day. Wear sun-protective clothing and broad-brimmed hats when outdoors during the day. Be even more careful if you take medications that make you sensitive to the sun, called photosensitivity. Learn more about protecting your skin from the sun.

Limiting or avoiding alcohol. Drinking alcohol can increase your risk of developing cancer. Limit how much alcohol you drink and do not binge drink or drink heavily. Talk with your health care team about how much alcohol you drink and learn more about alcohol and cancer risk.

Learn more about cancer risk factors.

Questions to ask your health care team

  • What is my follow-up care plan? How often will I return to see the doctor for check-ups?

  • What can I do to improve my lifestyle choices, such as eating and exercise, after cancer treatment? Where should I start?

  • What type of eating plan is best for me after treatment ends? Should I talk with an oncology dietitian?

  • Are there restrictions on any exercises that can I do after cancer treatment? What type of regular exercise would you recommend for me?

  • What are some good ways to track my progress and overall health as I make healthy behavior changes?

  • Who can I talk to if I am having trouble coping with the emotions and stress from cancer?

  • What cancer risk factors should I limit or avoid?

Related Resources

Food and Cancer Prevention

How to Stay Healthy After Cancer

5 Myths About Cancer and Food, Explained by Dietitians

4 Components of an Effective Exercise Program for Survivors

Grief and/or Gratitude? Choosing the Truth of Your Cancer Experience

More Information

American Cancer Society: Nutrition and Physical Activity During and After Cancer Treatment: Answers to Common Questions

American Institute for Cancer Research: Diet—What To Eat for Lower Cancer Risk

LIVESTRONG: Planning for Healthy Living