Are you facing a cancer diagnosis? We seek holistic expert advice to help you through the treatment process
One in two of us will develop cancer at some point in our lives, and while this statistic makes for grim reading, almost 60 percent of these diagnoses are in people over 65, and with improvements in treatment, more people than ever are surviving. But the treatment process itself can be a bumpy road. We asked the experts for tips to help get you through…
Exercise has been found in numerous studies to improve cancer survival rates. It increases the oxygenation of tissues, causes the release of anti-inflammatory endorphins and improves gut bacteria. But sometimes it can feel like the last thing you want to do when going through treatment. “Being active, and keeping at it, is hard work,” says Door Vonk, founding partner of Untire, the NHS- approved anti-fatigueduring- cancer app. “It can feel like the last thing you want to do, but staying active is key. Even if it’s just small steps.
“Try planning activities ahead of time to avoid feeling overwhelmed and remember, less is more. It’s best to start with small, achievable tasks. And guard your boundaries.
“Aim to keep things interesting with a mix of short and longer walks, meet-ups with friends and different types of exercises – anything that keeps your mind and body active.”
“Yoga can provide support during the most challenging of times,” says expert teacher Sue Fuller (yoga2hear.co.uk). “Often the psychological support and strength that yoga provides is far more beneficial than the physical support, and a few restorative yoga postures will help to maintain a healthy state of mind, reduce anxiety, fear, fatigue and stress and help you get a good night’s sleep.
“It is also a good idea to practise with your friends and family. Yoga is something you can do together, and all those who care about you will also benefit from a few nurturing and restorative practices.
“Try the following yoga postures. If you experience any pain or discomfort, relax the posture immediately and sit or lie comfortably focusing on your breath.”
“Lie on your back, with the soles of your feet together and your eyes lightly closed. Rest your hands onto your tummy so that you can feel the area rise as you inhale and fall as you exhale. Tune in to your breath and breathe slowly in and out through your nose. Become aware of the natural pause at the end of the inhalation before you exhale and the natural pause at the end of the exhalation.
“If you are comfortable, extend your arms up above your head, keeping them in contact with the floor and breathe, slowly softening your shoulders as you exhale.
“If you find this posture uncomfortable, try placing a cushion beside each hip to provide support for the legs. Stay in this posture for 30 or more complete breaths.”
“This spinal twist is nourishing and soothing. It will help release tension in the lower back, hips and shoulders, and by performing it as a gentle flow it will soothe a restless or busy mind, too.
“Lie on your back with your arms out to the side level with your shoulders, and your palms facing up. Place the soles of your feet on the floor, with the feet hip-width apart and the knees pointing up.
“Inhale, and as you exhale, let your knees fall to the right and turn your head to the left. Inhale and return to your starting position, and exhale, let your knees fall left and turn your head to the right. Continue like this, synchronising your breath and movement for 20 or more complete breaths, then draw your knees in towards your chest and breathe slowly for a further 10 or more complete breaths.”
“Yoga will teach you to breathe slowly and completely, which is such a useful tool. You can use the breath in many different ways to provide support or relief. Whenever you feel stressed, anxious, in pain or under energised, find somewhere to sit quietly with a straight spine and breathe. Breathe through your nose and work to lengthen each exhalation. Once you learn to breathe, you can perform different visualisations with the breath; for example, picture the exhalation removing stress, anxiety or pain, or picture the inhalation bringing fresh energy to the body.”
“Nutrition has a huge impact on the strength of our immune system, our mood, our hormonal function, and, in particular, our energy levels,” says Julie Webb, nutritional therapist at Breast Cancer Haven (breastcancerhaven.org.uk), “so it’s important to get it right. These are our guidelines, but be flexible – during treatment, you may find that your appetite varies, or your energy levels decrease. In general, however, the following guidelines are the best approach to take when receiving cancer treatment:
“Half of your diet should be made up of fruits and vegetables. This means that over the course of the day you should aim to be eating eight to 10 portions. However, although fruit is full of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, it’s also high in natural sugar, so we recommend you limit your fruit intake to two to three portions daily and the rest of the quota is made up of vegetables.
“Aim for a rainbow of colours to ensure a range of antioxidants and where possible, choose organic to avoid pesticides which can mimic hormones.
“Eating this amount of fruit and veg doesn’t need to be daunting. At breakfast you may want to eat some whole fruit, or have a fruit salad, or a juice, or a smoothie. Or, if you’re having a cooked breakfast, maybe include mushrooms, spinach and grilled tomatoes. At lunch, you can either have three different veggies cut up as crudités, or a salad. And at dinner, always serve three different vegetables, or half a plate of salad.
“The other half of your diet is where the bulk of your calories come from. This includes carbohydrates, proteins and fats. Carbohydrates include oats, rice, rye, barley, wheat (bread, pasta, flour) and it’s important to focus on quality over quantity – choose wholegrain, unrefined versions where possible, and limit your portions to about 20 percent of your plate. Of course, you can still have the odd croissant, but most of the time, make it brown and unrefined. Too much of the wrong type of carbohydrate, such as unrefined sugar (found in chocolate, for example); can lead to further fatigue and feelings of hunger.
“We recommend that you include protein at each of your three meals. We need protein at each meal to reduce the blood sugar effects of the carbohydrates. It also provides the essential amino acids necessary for building blood, hormones, immune cells, and liver detoxification. Protein should be taken from a variety of sources including red meat, poultry, fish, eggs, pulses, dairy, nuts and seeds and soya. Similarly to vegetables, aim, where possible, for organic and fresh (particularly with red meat and dairy) and avoid the processed varieties. Keep red meat to two times per week (and not exceeding 500g cooked weight weekly) and have two vegetarian days per week.
“Finally, fats. Fats are important and we want to help you find them from healthy sources. You should try and make sure that you have the equivalent of about two tablespoons of fat in each meal. This will not make you put on weight, but will actually help you feel full and reduce food cravings. Fat is also the transport vehicle for the fat-soluble vitamins K, A, D and E. It’s now known that it’s safe for some of your fat to come from saturated sources, like butter (not margarine), coconut fat and animal fat. The most important ones are omega 3, omega 6, and omega 9. Omega 9 can be found in olive oil and avocado, and omega 6 in nuts and seeds.
“The most important fat to include is omega 3, which is found in oily fish such as salmon, mackerel, pilchards, sardines, and herring. If you do not eat oily fish, we would recommend you supplement daily with a good quality fish oil or cod liver oil, and you can also find omega 3 fatty acids in leafy green veg and ground flax seeds. We do not recommend taking food supplements without consulting a trained nutritional therapist or dietitian first.
“Finally, remember to stay hydrated, especially during treatment. Aim to drink about one and a half litres of water a day, which can include herbal teas. We do not recommend that you drink any alcohol during your treatment programme. It can cause dehydration, hot flushes, and can influence oestrogen levels, particularly in post-menopausal women. But after treatment is over, it can of course be enjoyed in moderation on special occasions.”
“Fatigue is a common side effect of chemotherapy,” says Dr Caroline Hoffman, clinical and research director at Breast Cancer Haven. “We suggest taking moderate exercise and making sure you get enough sleep. However, we do recognise that some of the drugs given alongside chemotherapy can adversely affect your sleep. Acupuncture, touch therapies, mindfulness and healthy eating can all help here, too.
“Pain is common after cancer surgery, or people may be living with pain because of the cancer, or get pain in the hands and feet as a result of some chemotherapy drugs. Exercises can be performed to gradually increase your range of movement back to normal after an operation, while a scar tissue massage is very helpful to reduce tightness over the post-operative site after the wound has healed completely. It is best to check with your doctor when you can start exercising safely. Acupuncture can help with pain and is also very relaxing and balancing for the body. Reflexology or shiatsu can be used for people who don’t like the idea of needles (even though acupuncture needles are very fine and it is usually not painful). Hypnotherapy and mindfulness are also helpful for pain and give you the tools to support yourself.
“Menopausal symptoms are common following chemotherapy, especially in women already approaching menopause. Hot flushes and night sweats often need changes to diet (reducing foods and drinks that add heat to the body – alcohol, spicy foods, tea and coffee) as well as wearing natural fibres and layers that can be easily removed. Keeping calm, using relaxation techniques and mindfulness can be helpful. Keeping a fan to hand can also be helpful.
“Disruption to sleep may come as a result of pain or discomfort, night sweats, shortness of breath, anxiety and fear, or other reasons. A relaxation or mindfulness audio can help settle the mind and I’d recommend having an hour prior to bedtime without using any devices like phones, tablets or TVs. If waking up in the middle of the night is a problem, some find it best to bring their attention to the body’s sensations and the breath, thus short-circuiting worries and fearful thoughts that often crowd at night. For others, getting up and having a chamomile tea can also help. The scent of lavender oil is helpful for some to aid sleep.”
Why not sign up for a challenge like Ride the Night 2020? You’ll join thousands of other women for a 50 or 100km cycle through London at night for a great charity – either Breast Cancer Care, Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust and Ovarian Cancer Action. Visit dream-challenges.com
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