How to help yourself

Many people feel that there is nothing they can do when they are told they have cancer. They feel out of control and helpless for a while. However, there are practical ways you can help yourself.

Diet and food safety

A balanced, nutritious diet will help to keep you as well as possible and cope with any side effects of treatment.

It is important that you eat well so that you will:

  • feel better and have more energy
  • get the most benefit from your treatment with fewer side effects
  • improve your body's ability to heal, and to fight infection
  • maintain a healthy weight.

If you are thinking about making a dramatic change to your diet, look at your choices closely and discuss them with your cancer doctor or dietitian.

Many unproven dietary treatments, particularly those that cut out whole food groups, such as meat or dairy, may not provide enough energy (calories or kilojoules), protein or essential nutrients. This can cause unwanted weight loss, tiredness and decrease your immune function. Your recovery and quality of life can improve if you eat a healthy diet.

There is no evidence to support claims that special diets, herbal products or vitamins can cure cancer. Some diets or nutrients do no harm, but there are some that are harmful and can interfere with the success of your treatment.

"I have five things to hope for — things to make me happy during the day (could be flowers or a great cup of coffee), five things to give thanks for ('thank you for being my friend'). I make them happen. Once you do that you can start a new life." June

Food safety is of special concern to cancer patients, especially during treatment, which may suppress immune function.

To make food as safe as possible, we suggest you follow these guidelines:

  • Wash your hands thoroughly before eating.
  • Keep all areas and utensils you use for food preparation clean, including washing hands before preparing food and washing fruit and vegetables.
  • Handle raw meat, fish, poultry and eggs with care, and clean carefully any surfaces that have been in contact with these foods.
  • Keep raw meats separate from cooked food.
  • Cook meat, poultry and fish well, and use pasteurised milk and juices.
  • Refrigerate food quickly to reduce bacterial growth.
  • If you are concerned about the purity of your water, for example, if you have well water or rainwater from your roof, have it checked for bacterial content.

If you are concerned about its purity, boil it for two or three minutes. For more information you may like to read Eating Well During Cancer Treatment, which is available through your local Cancer Society, is on the Society's website or by ringing the Cancer Society Information Helpline 0800 CANCER (226 237).


Research has shown that people who remain active cope better with their treatment. The problem is that while too much exercise is tiring, too little exercise can also make you tired. Therefore, it is important to find your own level. Discuss with your doctor or nurse what is best for you. New research shows exercise may be helpful for your immune system. Many people find regular exercise helps recovery and reduces tiredness. Recent publications show that maintaining a normal weight and exercising may reduce the risk of some types of cancer recurring.

Phone your Cancer Information Helpline 0800 CANCER (226 237) for information on exercise programmes in your area.

For more information on the benefits of regular physical activity for people with cancer, phone the cancer information nurses on the Cancer Information Helpline 0800 CANCER (226 237) or contact your local Cancer Society to receive a copy of our pamphlet Being Active When You Have Cancer.

"Getting as fit as possible before a big surgery is a massive aid to a fast recovery. I did this before my surgery. I recovered really quickly and was able to return to work and regain my former fitness more quickly than if I had not. It also gave me an area I could control in my recovery." Angela

Difficulty with sleeping

Sleep difficulties are common in times of stress or change. Sleep difficulties lead to poor concentration, tiredness and mood problems. Sleep and anxiety can be a vicious cycle. The more we worry about sleep the less likely we are to sleep. The following are some suggestions that may help:

  • Relax in the evening by doing something you enjoy; for example, reading or listening to music. Try to wind down before you go to bed.
  • Have a regular routine for preparing for bed and a regular time for bed.
  • Exercise during the day can help you sleep well.
  • If possible, do not use your bedroom as an office or study. The bedroom should be reserved for sleeping and sexual activity, so that you associate it with pleasurable feelings.
  • Try not to do work-related activities too close to bedtime.
  • Ensure that your sleeping environment is as comfortable as possible; for example, a pleasant room temperature, darkness, low or no noise.
  • Some people find lavender relaxing. Try a lavender pillow or oil in the bath.
  • Caffeinated coffee, tea, soft drinks and alcohol are stimulants. Drinking these before bedtime may keep you awake, but a warm bath and milky drink may be helpful.

"The big thing is surround yourself with family and friends, music and quiet." Sue

Relaxation techniques

Some people find relaxation or meditation helps them to feel better. Many people have already developed their own methods of dealing with anxiety and stress and these can be applied just as successfully to coping with the diagnosis of cancer. Others decide to learn to relax or meditate when they are diagnosed with cancer. There are many different relaxation techniques, such as controlled breathing exercises, yoga, meditation and guided imagery.

Relaxation exercises are usually based on the control of breathing and/or the tensing and relaxing of muscles. Here is a simple technique that you can try at home:

  1. Lie, stand or sit with your feet apart. Rest your hands loosely in your lap.
  2. Close your eyes and slow yourself down for a few minutes, by breathing a little more deeply and slowly than usual.
  3. Be conscious of the tension in your whole body, through your toes, feet, calves, thighs, abdomen, chest, back, fingers, arms, shoulders, neck, head, scalp and face.
  4. Now, each time you breathe out, allow some of the tension to go out of these areas. Let all your muscles slowly relax and enjoy the feeling of peace and calm that comes from total relaxation.
  5. Sit quietly for a while and help your mind relax by thinking about the pleasant experience of complete relaxation.
  6. Open your eyes and stretch slowly. Return to your day.

Allow yourself a regular period of relaxation. Ten to 15 minutes, twice a day, may be enough.

The hospital social worker, nurse or your local Cancer Society will know whether the hospital runs any relaxation programmes, or may be able to advise you on local community programmes.

"Art feeds my soul. I follow my passion. It sustains me and feeds me. It's all connected with whakapapa and Māori spirituality." Mihi

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