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You can’t change the fact that you have had cancer. What you can change is how you live the rest of your life — making choices to help you stay healthy and feel as well as you can. This can be a time to look at your life in new ways. Maybe you are thinking about how to improve your health over the long term. Some people even start during cancer treatment.

Make healthier choices

For many people, a diagnosis of cancer helps them focus on their health in ways they may not have thought much about in the past. Are there things you could do that might make you healthier? Maybe you could try to eat better or get more exercise. Maybe you could cut down on alcohol, or give up tobacco. Even things like keeping your stress level under control might help. Now is a good time to think about making changes that can have positive effects for the rest of your life. You will feel better and you will also be healthier.

You can start by working on those things that worry you most. Get help with those that are harder for you. For instance, if you are thinking about quitting smoking and need help, call the American Cancer Society at 1-800-227-2345. A tobacco cessation and coaching service can help increase your chances of quitting for good.

Eating better

Eating right can be a challenge for anyone, but it can get even tougher during and after cancer treatment. This is especially true for cancers of the head and neck. The cancer or its treatment can affect how you swallow or cause other problems. Nausea can be a problem from some treatments. You may lose your appetite for a while and lose weight when you don’t want to. Many people treated for these cancers need a feeding tube at least for a time.

If you are losing weight or have taste problems during treatment, do the best you can with eating and keep in mind that these problems usually improve over time. You may find it helps to eat small portions every 2 to 3 hours until you feel better and can go back to a more normal schedule. You might also want to ask your cancer team to refer you to a dietitian, an expert in nutrition who can give you ideas on how to fight some of the side effects of your treatment.

One of the best things you can do after treatment is to put healthy eating habits into place. You may be surprised at the long-term benefits of some simple changes, like increasing the variety of healthy foods you eat. Getting to and staying at a healthy weight, eating a healthy diet, and limiting your alcohol intake may lower your risk for a number of types of cancer, as well as having many other health benefits. You can get more information in Nutrition and Physical Activity During and After Cancer Treatment: Answers to Common Questions.

Rest, fatigue, and exercise

Feeling tired (fatigue) is a very common problem during and after cancer treatment. This is not a normal type of tiredness but a bone-weary exhaustion that doesn’t get better with rest. For some people, fatigue lasts a long time after treatment and can keep them from staying active. But exercise can actually help reduce fatigue and the sense of depression that sometimes comes with feeling so tired.

If you were very ill or weren’t able to do much during treatment, it is normal that your fitness, staying power, and muscle strength declined. You need to find an exercise plan that fits your own needs. If you haven’t exercised in a few years, you will have to start slowly — maybe just by taking short walks. Talk with your health care team before starting. Get their input on your exercise plans. Then try to get an exercise buddy so that you’re not doing it alone.

If you are very tired, you will need to balance activity with rest. It is OK to rest when you need to. Sometimes it’s really hard for people to allow themselves to rest when they are used to working all day or taking care of a household, but this is not the time to push yourself too hard. Listen to your body and rest when you need to. To learn more about dealing with fatigue, see Fatigue in People With Cancer and Anemia in People With Cancer. You can also find information on these and other side effects in the Physical Side Effects section of our website.

Exercise can improve your physical and emotional health.

  • It improves your heart fitness.
  • It makes your muscles stronger.
  • It reduces fatigue.
  • Along with a good diet, it will help you get to and stay at a healthy weight.
  • It can help lower anxiety and depression.
  • It can help you feel generally happier.
  • It helps you feel better about yourself.

Long term, we know that getting regular physical activity plays a role in helping to lower the risk of some cancers, as well as having other health benefits.

Can I lower my risk of the cancer growing or coming back?

Most people want to know if there are certain lifestyle changes they can make to reduce their risk of their cancer growing or coming back. For many cancers there is little solid evidence to guide people. This doesn’t mean that nothing will help —it's just that for the most part this is an area that hasn’t been well studied. Most studies have looked at lifestyle changes as ways to prevent cancer in the first place, not slowing it down or keeping it from coming back.

Tobacco and alcohol use have clearly been linked to laryngeal and hypopharyngeal cancers. If you smoke, it is very important to quit. Quitting improves the chance that treatment will be successful and lowers the chance of the cancer coming back. It can also reduce your chance of getting other new cancers (especially other head and neck or lung cancers), which is a serious problem among laryngeal and hypopharyngeal cancer survivors. Quitting can also help improve your appetite and your overall health. If you want to quit smoking and need help, call the American Cancer Society at 1-800-227-2345.

Other healthy habits such as eating well, getting regular exercise, and staying at a healthy weight may help as well, but no one knows for sure. But we do know that these types of changes can affect more than just your risk of cancer.

Last Medical Review: 04/08/2014
Last Revised: 02/17/2016