6 Lifestyle Changes to Improve Your Cancer Care


Lorenzo Cohen, PhD, is the Richard E. Haynes Distinguished Professor in Clinical Cancer Prevention and Director of the Integrative Medicine Program at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. You can follow him on Twitter @DrLCohen. Alison Jefferies, MEd, has degrees in both art history and education and a master’s degree in educational psychology. Cohen and Jefferies maintain the Anticancer Living website and are coauthors of Anticancer Living: Transform Your Life and Health with the Mix of Six.

How we live can have pro­found effects on our health and wellness. This also applies for people who have cancer. A healthy lifestyle can support cancer treatments and help you feel better. It may also improve your long-term health.share on twitter 

Healthy living means making positive behavior changes as part of an ongoing, life-long process. To choose areas for improvement, we recommend focusing on these 6 pillars, which we call the “Mix of Six.” Each supports the other, and the synergy of all 6 leads to the most success.

1. Accept practical and emotional support

Having a network of supportive people is very beneficial for your health, especially emotional support. Studies have compared people with cancer who had the most and least social support. Those with the most social support had better quality of life and lived longer.

Here are some suggestions for building a support system:

  • Ask for help or for a listening ear. People often want to help but don’t know how. So, make your requests specific.

  • Join a support group. Sharing with others who have similar experiences may help you cope.

  • Support others. This creates a healthy cycle of give and take.

2. Manage stress

Reducing your stress level can help you maintain your physical and mental health. Here are a few tips to manage stress:

  • Use relaxation techniques, such as guided imagery, meditation, and yoga.

  • Find small periods of time to meditate or reflect throughout the day. This can include taking a moment to be mindful while washing your hands, brushing your teeth, or waiting at a stoplight.

It can be helpful to set aside 20 minutes or more per day for stress management practices.

3. Get enough sleep

Try for 7 to 8 hours of sleep each night. This improves your health, coping ability, mood, weight control, memory and attention, and more

  • Set a bedtime and stick to it. Keep weekday and weekend bedtimes similar.

  • Try to have your bedroom as dark as possible.

  • Keep the bedroom temperature cool.

  • Avoid screen time before bed. This includes time spent on TV, smartphones, and backlit tablets.

  • Avoid stimulants like caffeine, alcohol, and sugar.

4. Exercise regularly 

Exercise during and after cancer treatment. This can help reduce fatigue, weight gain, and loss of strength. In addition to regular exercise, try to avoid sitting or lying down for long periods.

Here are some fitness tips:

  • Develop a fitness routine that is safe for you.

  • Include aerobic activity. This gets your heart pumping.

  • Include strength exercise, too.

  • Find ways to walk when you would normally be sitting.

  • Break up your sitting time by standing up every hour.

  • Engage in short bursts of exercise throughout your day.

  • Incorporate physical activity into family events, time with friends, and trips.  

Be sure to talk to your health care team about developing an exercise plan that is safe and appropriate for you. Read more exercise content on the Cancer.Net Blog.

5. Eat well

A healthy diet can help you manage cancer side effects, recover quicker, and improve health. It may also lower your future risk of cancer. Here are our tips to help you develop healthy eating habits:

  • Include an assortment of veg­etables in every meal. Vegetables should be the centerpiece of your meal, not just a side dish.

  • Eat foods high in fiber. These include whole grains, beans, peas, lentils, nuts, and seeds.

  • Include probiotic and prebiotic foods to support a healthy gut. Probiotic foods include yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut or other fermented vegetables, miso, pickles, tempeh, kimchi, kombucha. Prebiotic foods are high-fiber foods and include chicory root, Jerusalem artichoke, dandelion greens, raw garlic, raw leeks, raw or cooked onion, raw jicama, and legumes and beans. 

  • Choose less red meat, like beef, pork, lamb, goat, veal, and bison, and more fish, poultry, and plant-based proteins, such as beans.

  • Avoid processed meats, such as sandwich meats, hot dogs, sausages, bacon, and salami.

  • Include omega-3 and monounsaturated fats in your daily diet. Good sources include olive and canola oil, olives, walnuts, chia seeds, flaxseed, and avocado. Coldwater fish, like salmon, trout, halibut, and tuna, are good sources of these healthy fats.

  • Eat smaller portion sizes. An easy way to start is to use smaller plates and bowls when you eat.

  • Learn to identify when you feel hungry and when you are full. Sometimes, our bodies mistake thirst for hunger. Try drinking water first if you are feeling hungry outside of a meal time.

  • Avoid high-calorie, low-nutrient foods. These include sodas, fruit-flavored drinks, candy, and sweets. Choose fruit or dark chocolate in small portions as alternatives to sweets.

  • Eat less refined “white” foods. These include white bread, white sugar, and white rice. These foods are processed in a way that removes fiber, vitamins, and minerals.

  • Limit alcohol. Men shouldn’t have more than 2 alcoholic drinks per day. Women shouldn’t drink more than 1 alcoholic drink per day.

If you are receiving cancer treatment, it is important to work with a registered dietitian nutritionist with a specialization in oncology to develop a safe eating plan for you.

6. Avoid environmental toxins

Limit your exposure to environmental toxins that can increase a person’s risk of cancer and other illnesses, such as tobacco smoke, asbestos, styrene (found in Styrofoam), formaldehyde, and tetrachloroethylene (perchloroethylene; “dry cleaning fluid”), to name a few.





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