Lifestyle Changes After Having Oral Cavity and Oropharyngeal 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.
Making 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 the 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 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 right can be hard for anyone, but it can get even tougher during and after cancer treatment. This is especially true for cancers of the head and neck, such as oral cavity or oropharyngeal cancer. The cancer or its treatment may affect how you swallow or cause dry mouth, changes in taste, or other problems. Nausea can be a problem from some treatments. You may not feel like eating and lose weight when you don’t want to.
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 manage 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 a number of types of cancer, as well as having many other health benefits.
For more information, see 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 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. Someone who has never exercised will not be able to take on the same amount of exercise as someone 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 treatment side effects, please see the Physical Side Effects section of our website.
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 their cancer progressing 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 of preventing cancer in the first place, not slowing it down or preventing it from coming back.
Tobacco and alcohol use have clearly been linked to oral cavity and oropharyngeal cancers, so not smoking or drinking may help reduce your risk of the cancer returning. Smoking during treatment also causes treatment to be less effective, so if you smoke, it is very important to quit. Quitting will reduce your chance of developing other new cancers (especially other head and neck or lung cancers), which is a serious problem among oral cavity and oropharyngeal 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.
Adopting other healthy behaviors such as eating well, getting regular physical activity, and maintaining a healthy weight may help as well, but no one knows for sure. However, we do know that these types of changes can have positive effects on your health that can extend beyond your risk of cancer.
Last Medical Review: July 16, 2014 Last Revised: August 8, 2016
- What Happens After Treatment for Oral Cavity and Oropharyngeal Cancers?
- Can I Get Another Cancer After Having Oral Cavity or Oropharyngeal Cancer?
- Lifestyle Changes After Having Oral Cavity and Oropharyngeal Cancer
- How Does Having Oral Cavity or Oropharyngeal Cancer Affect Your Emotional Health?
- If Treatment for Oral Cavity and Oropharyngeal Cancers Stops Working