Lung Cancer (Non-Small Cell)

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After Treatment TOPICS

Lifestyle changes after non-small cell lung cancer

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 may 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 smoke, one of the most important things you can do to improve your chances for treatment success is to quit. Studies have shown that patients who stop smoking after a diagnosis of lung cancer have better outcomes than those who don’t. If you are thinking about quitting smoking and need help, call the American Cancer Society at 1-800-227-2345.

Eating better

Eating right can be hard for anyone, but it can get even tougher during and after cancer treatment. Treatment may change your sense of taste. Nausea can be a problem. You may not feel like eating and lose weight when you don’t want to. Or you may have gained weight that you can’t seem to lose. All of these things can be very frustrating.

If treatment caused weight changes or eating or taste problems, do the best you can and keep in mind that these problems usually get better over time. You may find it helps to eat small portions every 2 to 3 hours until you feel better. You may also want to ask your cancer team about seeing a dietitian, an expert in nutrition who can give you ideas on how to deal with these treatment side effects.

One of the best things you can do after cancer treatment is 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 some other cancers, as well as having many other health benefits. Get more information in our document Nutrition and Physical Activity During and After Cancer Treatment: Answers to Common Questions.

Rest, fatigue, and exercise

Extreme tiredness, called fatigue, is very common in people treated for cancer. This is not a normal tiredness, but a bone-weary exhaustion that often doesn’t get better with rest. For some people, fatigue lasts a long time after treatment, and can make it hard for them to exercise and do other things they want to do. But exercise can help reduce fatigue. Studies have shown that patients who follow an exercise program tailored to their personal needs feel better physically and emotionally and can cope better, too.

If you were sick and not very active during treatment, it is normal for your fitness, endurance, and muscle strength to decline. Any plan for physical activity should fit your own situation. An older person who has never exercised will not be able to take on the same amount of exercise as a 20-year-old who plays tennis twice a week. 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 anything. Get their opinion about your exercise plans. Then, try to find an exercise buddy so you’re not doing it alone. Having family or friends involved when starting a new exercise program can give you that extra boost of support to keep you going when the push just isn’t there.

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. (For more information on fatigue and other side effects, please see the “Physical Side Effects” section of our website or “Additional resources for non-small cell lung cancer” to get a list of available information.)

Keep in mind exercise can improve your physical and emotional health.

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

And 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 progressing or coming back?

Most people want to know if there are specific lifestyle changes they can make to reduce their risk of cancer progressing or coming back. Unfortunately, for most 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 of preventing cancer in the first place, not slowing it down or preventing it from coming back.

However, there are some things people can do that might help them live longer or reduce the risk of lung cancer returning.

Quitting smoking: If you smoke, quitting is important. Quitting has been shown to help people with lung cancer live longer, even when the cancer has spread. It also lowers the chance of getting another lung cancer, which is especially important for people with early stage lung cancer.

Of course, quitting smoking may have other health benefits as well, including lowering the risk of some other cancers. If you need help quitting, talk to your doctor or call the American Cancer Society at 1-800-227-2345.

Diet and nutrition: The possible link between diet and lung cancer growing or coming back is much less clear. Some studies have suggested that diets high in fruits and vegetables might help prevent lung cancer from developing in the first place, but this has not been studied in people who already have lung cancer.

Some early studies have suggested that people with early stage lung cancer who have higher vitamin D levels might have better outcomes, but so far no study has shown that taking extra vitamin D (as a supplement) helps. On the other hand, studies have found that beta carotene supplements may actually increase the risk of lung cancer in smokers.

Because of the lack of data in this area, it’s important to talk with your health care team before making any major changes to your diet (including taking any supplements) to try to improve your outlook.


Last Medical Review: 08/15/2014
Last Revised: 08/22/2014