Getting a cancer diagnosis can upend your life — physically, emotionally, and spiritually — even while it presents a whole new set of practical concerns: You’ll need to figure out how to find the right healthcare team, manage prescriptions, tackle financial and insurance questions, and a lot more. The guide here will help you meet the challenges of cancer, whether you are making decisions for yourself or you are the loved one or caregiver of a person who is ill or in recovery.
Managing Daily Life and Complications of Cancer
A cancer diagnosis can alter the rhythms of your life, affecting everything from what you eat to how you travel. Cancer experts have advice for how to break down big changes into smaller steps.
Diet for Cancer
Cancer and treatment side effects such as pain and nausea can make eating difficult. Still, it’s important to keep in mind that a nutritious diet with adequate calories and protein can help maintain strength and energy levels, protect against infection, ease fatigue and nausea, and speed recovery.
The American Cancer Society (ACS) offers a number of tips on how to get enough nourishment during cancer treatment. Its recommendations include the following advice:
- Aim for two and a half cups of fruits and vegetables each day. Include citrus and dark green and deep yellow vegetables.
- Minimize high-fat foods (especially those from animal sources). Opt for lower-fat cooking methods such as baking or broiling over frying.
- Snack throughout the day. Power snacks — yogurt, cereal and milk, cheese and crackers — help you get enough calories and protein.
Research on the link between cancer and diet is ongoing.
Exercising With Cancer
In the past, doctors typically advised people with cancer not to tire themselves out with exercise. That advice has changed completely, with an expert panel convened by the American College of Sports Medicine finding strong evidence that even a half hour of aerobic exercise done three times a week can combat anxiety, depression, and fatigue, and improve quality of life and physical function. (People with cancer should work with their doctors to tailor an exercise regimen.) The panel also found that, for people diagnosed with breast, colon, or prostate cancer, there is evidence of an association between exercise and longer survival.
Managing Your Prescriptions for Cancer
Some people with cancer need to take as many as 20 pills a day, according to the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center — both to fight the cancer and to counter pain, nausea, low blood counts, and more. Managing multiple medications can be confusing, but the team at MD Anderson has suggestions for how to stay organized and on schedule:
- Buy a pill organizer. Sold at drug stores, these containers have different compartments to hold each day’s pills. There are models with child-proof locks, reminder alarms, or automatic dispensers.
- Create your own organizer. Place each day’s medication into a small cup (or two cups, if you need to take pills twice a day).
- Make charts and calendars. Write out a list of the pills you need to take each day, then cross off each medicine after you take it. Alternately, label each bottle of medicine with a sticker in a different color, then place a matching sticker on your calendar after you take the pill.
Complementary and Alternative Medicine for Cancer
People with cancer often look beyond mainstream medicine for relief. While many approaches are largely unproven (such as ingesting turmeric or apple cider vinegar) or potentially harmful, a number of complementary therapies appear to safely relieve cancer symptoms or side effects of treatments, according to the National Cancer Institute (NCI). Clinical trials of acupuncture, for instance, have found it can relieve nausea and vomiting; research on aromatherapy with essential oils has yielded mixed results.
Traveling With Cancer
If you want or need to travel during cancer treatment or soon after, there are ways to enhance the experience while protecting your health. Cancer Research UK and Edward-Elmhurst Health offer some tips:
- Get the okay from your medical team. Ask your doctor to write a letter on official stationery explaining your condition, treatment regimen, and medications, and always keep it with you — especially if you have an IV port or other internal device that may raise questions during airport security screening.
- Plan travel details in advance. Notify the airline in advance if you’ll need additional oxygen to help you adjust to cabin air pressure or require an aisle seat so it’s easier to get up and move around the cabin periodically (most cancers increase the risk that an extended period of sitting can lead to a blood clot).
- Prepare for the unexpected. Well before your trip, be sure to identify a cancer hospital, doctor, and emergency facility at your destination that could provide treatment. Also, double-check your insurance to make sure you’ll have coverage while you’re away from home.
- Carry a copy of your records. If you are able to, keep a copy of your health history, procedures and surgeries performed, records of any implants (e.g., IV port or implant), and a list of all medications in case you find yourself needing to seek medical care in another city or country.
Finding Doctors for Cancer
Battling cancer requires a team approach. The nonprofit group CancerCare lists a number of specialists who work together to treat the disease, including the following roles:
- Medical oncologist
- Surgical oncologist
- Radiation oncologist
- Oncology nurse
- Oncology social worker
- Dietitian or nutritionist
- Plastic surgeon
This doctor focuses on cancer, managing treatment and coordinating the healthcare team’s efforts.
If a patient requires surgery, this cancer specialist will step in.
This specialist has expertise in treating cancer with radiation.
An oncology nurse has a number of responsibilities, including providing bedside care and educating patients and families about the disease and treatment.
Oncology Social Worker
An oncology social worker provides counseling to people with cancer and helps them access services and different types of practical assistance (such as filling out paperwork to apply for Social Security disability).
These doctors can prescribe antianxiety or antidepressant medications to people who need them.
Dietitian or Nutritionist
A registered dietitian can help patients manage their eating and drinking and address issues related to decreased appetite, weight loss, and issues with chewing and swallowing.
A plastic surgeon is responsible for any reconstructive procedures necessary for your cancer procedures or surgical interventions.
Your Mental Health and Cancer
While a cancer diagnosis is distressing, there are steps people can take to protect their mental health and treat anxiety or depression disorders that may arise.
Managing Depression and Cancer
Depression is different than sadness or grief; it is a mental illness. The NCI states that about 20 percent of people diagnosed with cancer will become depressed. Treatment may include these options:
- Counseling or talk therapy, such as crisis intervention, psychotherapy, or cognitive behavioral therapy
- Antidepressant medication
Managing Anxiety and Cancer
According to the NCI, studies show that almost half of all people with cancer say they feel some anxiety, with about one-fourth saying they feel a great deal of anxiety. The NCI suggests a number of treatments for anxiety disorders:
- Individual, couple, family, or crisis counseling
- Group therapy
- Self-help groups
- Cognitive behavioral therapy
- Relaxation therapy, such as hypnosis or meditation
- Anti-anxiety or antidepressant medications
How Cancer Can Affect Your Relationships
Cancer can strengthen some relationships while creating tension in others. Learning how to cope with the emotional fallout of a diagnosis is critical for both your mental and physical health.
Your Friendships and Cancer
Studies have shown that people with cancer do better — and may even live longer — with social support. But sometimes friends pull back because they don’t know what to say or how to help. If you have cancer, being open about how you feel, and specific and clear about what you need, can help keep your relationships strong.
Your Spouse or Partner and Cancer
Cancer can test even the most loving relationships because it involves potentially frightening conversations about everything from physical limitations and financial concerns to death. The American Society of Clinical Oncology has compiled some tips for how to handle these challenges. One piece of advice for couples: Focus on active listening, which means concentrating on understanding what your partner is saying instead of what you’re going to say next. Also, while your impulse might be to try to manage your care in isolation, include your spouse or partner in the treatment process so that they also know what to expect and how to be supportive.
Family Planning With Cancer
Cancer treatments can harm fertility — for instance, chemotherapy drugs can damage eggs or slow down or stop sperm production, according to the ACS. Talk to your doctor before treatment to discuss whether there are medical options that make it possible to preserve your fertility.
Dating With Cancer
If you’re interested in dating during cancer treatment, you may be unsure about how, when, or whether to reveal your condition as well as be concerned about rejection. The experts at the Cleveland Clinic emphasize that being open and honest can help relieve stress and anxiety. Support groups like those organized by CancerCare can also help you figure out how to navigate the dating world.
Sex Life With Cancer
Cancer and cancer treatments can definitely affect your sex life: Men who have been treated for prostate cancer may have difficulty maintaining an erection, for instance, while women who have had their ovaries removed, are taking hormonal therapy, or are undergoing chemotherapy may experience painful intercourse due to vaginal dryness. But it is possibly to maintain intimacy after a cancer diagnosis. Even if intercourse is no longer possible, start with focusing on other ways of expressing closeness, such as kissing and caressing. Talk to your doctor or a sex therapist for guidance.
Medication for Cancer
Medications used to treat cancer fall into several categories:
- Chemotherapy Chemo kills cancer cells directly. It’s a systemic treatment that kills cancer cells that may be circulating throughout your body before being detectable with imaging.
- Immunotherapy These medications boost the power of the body’s own immune system to fight disease.
- Targeted Therapy Targeted therapy exploits specific changes, or mutations, inside cancer cells.
- Hormone Therapy Certain cancer cells need hormones for growth; hormone therapy slows or stops those cancers. Hormone therapy can also help prevent new hormone-sensitive cancers from forming.
The NCI maintains a list of drugs used to treat cancer and cancer-related conditions.
Money Matters: The Cost of Living With Cancer
Cancer treatment can be very expensive, even if you have insurance, a problem referred to as “financial toxicity” Here are some ways to cope.
Medication Prices for Cancer
It’s common for individual cancer drugs to cost more than $10,000 a month, according to the NCI. There are organizations that can help: NeedyMeds, for instance, provides information on drug assistance programs and has its own drug discount card, while the Patient Access Network Foundation offers copay assistance to people with cancer who have insurance but can’t afford the out-of-pocket costs.
Managing Your Work Life With Cancer
Balancing work and cancer can be tough, starting with the decision about whether to work right through treatment or take time off. Discuss your work obligations with your healthcare team, describing the physical and mental demands of the job and how easy or difficult it will be to manage side effects and other issues. It’s worth asking whether you can take medicines or go in for treatments early or late in the day, minimizing disruption to your work schedule.
Can You Apply for Disability if You Have Cancer?
The Social Security Administration’s Compassionate Allowances program enables people with certain types of cancer (such as acute leukemia, small-cell and non-small-cell lung cancer, and metastatic breast cancer) to qualify for Social Security Disability Insurance. The program is open to people who have worked long enough and paid taxes but who, because of their illness, are no longer capable of meeting the demands of their jobs. The process of applying isn’t easy (you may be denied and need to appeal), but the program can provide a safety net.
Patient Stories: Living With Cancer
Life with cancer is different for everyone, but learning about other people with the disease and their setbacks and successes can provide information and inspiration.
Nicole Schalmo: Brain Cancer Warrior
When this actress was diagnosed with brain cancer, she didn’t start thinking about her funeral — she kept on planning her wedding.
Susan Manber: Skin Cancer Survivor
This healthcare communications executive, diagnosed with Merkel cell carcinoma in 2012, believes her daughter saved her life by alerting her to a small, strange growth on her nose.
Clinical Trials for Cancer
Clinical trials, research studies that involve human volunteers, are aimed at evaluating new ways to prevent, detect, or treat disease.
How to Find a Clinical Trial
The website ClinicalTrials.gov, maintained by the National Library of Medicine at the National Institutes of Health, is a searchable database of studies taking place in 50 states and over 200 countries; these include cancer studies supported by the NCI as well as those sponsored by pharmaceutical and biotech companies.
What to Consider Before Joining a Clinical Trial
People participate in clinical trials for a variety of reasons. Those with cancer may do it to receive novel treatments not yet available to the general public as well as to help move science forward and help other people. There are potential risks, though. For instance, as the ACS points out, researchers may not know the side effects of an experimental treatment.
Latest News and Research on Cancer
While surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy remain mainstays of cancer treatment, scientists have made breakthroughs that are changing the game for certain types of disease.
News and Research on Cancer
Immunotherapy is a relatively new form of treatment that harnesses the power of the body’s own immune system to fight diseases like cancer. For some types of cancer, it shows particular promise: A landmark 2019 study on metastatic melanoma found that 52 percent of people taking a combination of two immunotherapy drugs survived at least five years.
Another new type of treatment, called targeted therapy, hones in on certain mutations (genetic changes) in cancer cells. For people with some types of metastatic non-small-cell lung cancer, targeted treatments can be more effective than chemotherapy.
Cancer Awareness Months
Cancer awareness months help increase public support for advocacy efforts, highlighting political obstacles to progress and raising money for research, patient support, educational resources, and hospitals. February, for instance, is Cancer Prevention Month. The nonprofit Choose Hope maintains a calendar of cancer awareness months, noting corresponding products like ribbons and wristbands.
Editor’s Picks: Best of Roundups
If you have cancer, there are many ways to find help — whether you’re looking to educate yourself about your disease, join an online community, or download an app to help you organize your medical schedule. Everyday Health has compiled “best of” roundups of resources for specific cancers, such as ovarian cancer, skin cancer, and prostate cancer.