Information on cancer for patients and families

Fighting disease, fighting poverty, giving hope

This short series of chapters will provide you with basic information about cancer. You can read them in sequence, or jump straight to any chapter as follows:

  1. What is Cancer?
  2. Treatment of Cancer
  3. How do I take care of my body during cancer? (This page)
  4. How do I cope with cancer?
  5. Further Resources

Chapter 3

How do I take care of my body during cancer?

Personal care

When you have cancer and get treatment for cancer, it is important that you take good care of your body. This will help your treatment to be more effective.

The cancer may make your body weak, you can have pain sometimes, or difficulty breathing, and sometimes people lose a lot of weight: it is not easy, but there are many ways and professionals in the hospital to help you.

Healthy living is very important from now on!

Please discuss all your problems with your oncology doctors or other medical professionals. They will try their best to relieve your problems and give you the correct information.

Healthy living

As with all disease, if you are sick, you need all your strength to recover. That way you can fight the cancer better, and suffer less from side effects. Make sure you:

  • get enough sleep
  • stop smoking and drinking alcohol. Get help if you need assistance
  • eat a healthy diet, full of vegetables, fruits, whole grains and dairy
  • wash fruit and vegetables well before eating them
  • try to walk daily for 20-30 minutes if your energy levels allow it. This helps to keep you strong.
  • boil water from a river before drinking it or using it for cooking
  • maintain good personal hygiene to prevent infections
  • brush your teeth AND tongue. Rinse with salt water
  • bath daily
  • wash your hands after going to the toilet
  • cover your mouth when coughing or sneezing
  • avoid close contact with others who are sick with the flu, a cold or have a contagious disease like tuberculosis (TB)
  • keep wounds dry, clean and disinfected.
  • socialize and find support from friends and family, talk openly about your worries, or join a support group.

Skincare during radiotherapy (always check with the radiotherapist)

You can bathe or shower, but do not rub or soak the area that has been marked for radiotherapy unless you get specific instructions from your doctor. Use aqueous cream, baby soap or liquid baby wash for washing.

  • don’t use perfume or perfumed soaps, talc or lotions
  • don’t use deodorant on areas receiving radiotherapy like the under arms in breast cancer patients.
  • men having radiotherapy to the head and neck should use an electric razor instead of wet shaving
  • do gentle stretching exercises for 3 minutes to prevent the muscles and the skin in the irradiated area becoming stiff. Ask your physiotherapist to demonstrate.

Clothing during radiotherapy

During radiotherapy and for a while afterwards your skin may be sensitive over the areas treated. You may find it more comfortable to:

  • wear loose fitting clothes
  • use clothes made of natural fibres
  • avoid tight collars, ties and scarves if you had radiotherapy to your neck
  • avoid shoulder and bra straps – go without a bra, wear a crop top or sports bra in a bigger size instead of a normal bra with shoulder straps.
  • Going outdoors during radiotherapy or chemotherapy

Your skin is sensitive so try to avoid strong sun, wind or cold. As always, when exposed to the sun, you should:

  • use a high factor sunscreen
  • wear a hat and long sleeved shirts.

Common problems and solutions

If you have any of the following complaints, find advice from your medical professional straight away. The earlier a problem is treated, the better.

Pain

Pain can be caused by the tumour or as a result of treatment: a surgical wound, pain in the radiated area or from sores. Your doctor or nurse can help.

Tell them where, when and how severe the pain is.

Pain can be well controlled with the right medication!

Make sure you take your pain medications as prescribed.

Diarrhea, nausea

This is a very common side effect of chemotherapy and of radiotherapy.

  • Avoid caffeine, alcohol, dairy, fat, fibre,orange juice, prune juice, and spicy foods.
  • Avoid laxatives and stool softeners
  • Eat small frequent meals and ask your dietician which foods are best to eat when you have diarrhea. Foods that are easy for the stomach to digest include bananas, rice and toast.
  • Drink plenty of water and other clear liquids to prevent dehydration

Ask the doctor for medication to help.

Constipation

Try to eat foods that are high in fibre like fruit and whole wheat bread and drink enough water…
Ask your doctor to prescribe medicine to help.

Loss of appetite and sores in mouth

  • try to eat small, frequent snacks rather than three large meals
  • cook your food soft, and even mash it to make it easier to swallow
  • use medication to keep the sores clean. Ask your doctor to prescribe it.

Swelling of arm or leg or face (oedema)

This can happen because the tumour or a surgical wound is preventing normal circulation in an arm or leg.

The arm feels heavy, full, the skin can be tight and hard and rings or sleeves feel tight. Sometimes there is tingling and you may notice difficulty using the arm. Speak to your doctor.

The physiotherapist can give you specific exercises and a bandaging technique to alleviate the swelling.

Weakness, fatigue, loss of feeling

The treatment and the cancer are a challenge to your whole body, including the muscles and nerves.

You may feel very tired and have problems moving normally. If you have a tingling or burning sensation in your hands and feet you should inform your doctor immediately.

There is specific medication for this neuropathy.

Difficulty breathing or breathlessness

There can be several reasons for this problem, and they all need to be treated by the doctor.

The lung can be damaged (temporarily) by the chemotherapy or radiotherapy, or you can suffer from anaemia (low red blood cells). The body becomes more prone to infection, so a possible chest infection needs to be treated. Another reason can be that the lungs or abdomen are collecting fluid which makes it difficult to breathe deeply.

Go to the nearest clinic or hospital if you suddenly become breathless or experience a change in your breathing pattern.

Who’s doing what in the hospital?

There are many medical people involved in the treatment and support of patients with cancer. It is a team, consisting of the following professionals:

Doctor

  • Makes individual treatment plan (surgery, chemotherapy, radiotherapy).
  • Prescribes medication (pain, nausea, infection)

Nurse

  • Wound care, skin care
  • Gives general information, medication

Radiotherapist

  • Plans radiation and marks the spot(s) on your body
  • Gives daily radiation
  • Checks treatment, skin and side effects

Dietician

  • Ensures optimum nutrition for patients undergoing or recovering from cancer treatments.
  • Advises on problems with taking food (altered taste, sores in mouth)

Physiotherapist

  • Assists with difficulties in moving, weakness, pain, joint mobility
  • Treats oedema in arms and legs
  • Assists with breathing and coughing

Psychologist

  • Assists patients and families with dealing with the emotional and psychological consequences of being diagnosed with cancer and living with cancer

Speech-language Therapist

  • Assists with problems regarding your speech or swallowing (for instance, when you are treated for mouth or neck cancer)

Social Worker

  • Provides counselling, education and support to patients and their families to cope with cancer and its impact on relationships, work, school and community.

In the next chapter, you will learn more about how to cope with cancer, and how to talk to and involve your loved ones for support. Never hesitate to ask a question about your health, body, treatment or anything else. Do you want to know more?

Ask your doctor, nurse, physiotherapist or social worker – and read the other chapters!

Click here to proceed to Chapter 4 ⇒

Return to main Cancer Resources page

Page last updated: October 2018