Self care in cancer refers to self-directed habits or practices you can undertake alone or with people in your community. Self care is usually inexpensive and often doesn’t require a health professional.
We’ve grouped much of self care into our 7 Healing Practices. We can’t overemphasize how powerful these seven practices can be. They can enhance your quality of life and strengthen resilience to achieve better outcomes with conventional therapies. They often also have anticancer and pro-healing effects of their own.
You don’t need to do all the 7 Healing Practices. How much you want to do depends on your goals for this part of your life.
I’ve known many people who weren’t interested in these healing practices. Many did fine living doing whatever conventional and complementary therapies made sense to them.
The secret to self care is simply caring about yourself. Let it be real. Do what makes you feel better. Do what you believe is worth doing. If you slack off, just pick yourself up and start again. But only if you’re drawn to continuing.
Sometimes it’s helpful to find community for self care. You can join one of our cancer groups at our sister program Healing Circles Global. Or you can find healing community wherever you feel most comfortable—with neighbors, your faith community, or any other trusted place.
Love is the greatest healing power. Self care is love. It’s not always easy to let ourselves love ourselves. But it is at the heart of healing.
Wishing you well,
Michael Lerner is co-founder of Commonweal and co-founder of the Commonweal Cancer Help Program, Healing Circles, The New School at Commonweal, and CancerChoices. He has led more than 200 Commonweal Cancer Help Program retreats to date. His book Choices In Healing: Integrating the Best of Conventional and Complementary Approaches to Cancer was the first book on integrative cancer care to be well received by prominent medical journals as well as by the patient and integrative cancer care community.
First, understand that you did not cause your cancer. However, you can improve your health so that cancer cannot grow as easily in your body. We know that certain exposures or lifestyle choices may support cancer growth.
Taking control of your health
Your treatment plan may include surgery, radiation, or drugs to treat your cancer. Although these therapies are designed to eliminate most of the cancer cells, they are not designed to keep cancer from returning. Usually some cancer cells survive, and we must count on our own internal anticancer defenses to kill the remaining cells and keep cancer from recurring. We need to meet conventionalthe cancer care offered by conventionally trained physicians and most hospitals; examples are chemotherapy, surgery, and radiotherapy cancer treatment where it leaves off, letting healthy lifestyle practices carry the baton from there.
The power of adopting a healthy lifestyle is in making your body less supportive of cancer and other diseases. Cancer does not occur at random, nor does it grow in isolation. It develops within an environment that is either more or less supportive of cancer, depending on several factors, including our individual body terrains—our internal environments.
How we interact with the environment around us can influence our body terrainthe internal conditions of your body, including nutritional status, fitness, blood sugar balance, hormone balance, inflammation and more—what we eat and drink, what we breathe in, how we respond to stressors, and what we are exposed to, including viruses and bacteria, chemicals, radiation, and sounds.
Some of these factors may be beyond your control, but you may be able to make some changes to make your body a less hospitable place for cancer to thrive going forward. Self care is about identifying those areas you can influence or change, and then finding support for making whatever changes you choose.
Your choices in self care
Self care in cancer refers to health-promoting habits and practices that
- You can implement largely on your own at low or no cost
- Can powerfully enhance the quality of your life
- Can make you a healthier, more resilient person
- Are supported by evidence
These practices are accepted by professionals across the medical spectrum, but they may not be emphasized enough in your conventional care.
Self care in cancer includes the 7 Healing Practices and 4 Healthy Habits. All are grounded in Exploring What Matters Now. These are powerful tools to help you care for yourself proactively and to rebuild your health. Self care and complementary care can be intertwined, as many complementary therapies can be used to support self care.
Example: mind-body therapies can offer support in Sleeping Well and Managing Stress.
These practices and habits may be easy to gloss over as being less important or effective than drugs or other approaches. But they are commonly known for supporting your health and wellness, allowing you to take full advantage of other treatments.
Reducing your side effects may mean you can complete your conventional treatments as well as enjoy a higher quality of life.
Choose practices that appeal to you
We offer a wide array of options for you to consider, similar to an appetizer tray circulating at a party. You don’t have to try everything, and in fact that would probably overwhelm you. Instead, take a look. Find what appeals to you. Sample it. If it’s good, you may come back and try some more. Maybe you can try something else, too.
Make changes on your terms. Do what is reasonable and possible for you. We don’t expect you to be perfect, and we encourage you not to expect so, either. Instead, we’re here to help you take whatever steps you choose to build your health and resilience.
These steps may help you withstand the rigors of cancer treatment. Your choices can take you into and through your whole cancer experience so you can land in the best place for you.
Our daily choices in life have a direct, measurable impact on cancer and other chronic diseases.1Cohen L, Jefferies A. Anticancer Living: Transform Your Life and Health with the Mix of Six. New York: Viking. 2018. p xii. Many of the risk factors associated with cancer are also risk factors for other diseases:2The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, California Environmental Protection Agency, Western States Pediatric Environmental Health Specialty Unit. A Story of Health E-Book. Accessed from the Collaborative on Health and the Environment September 20, 2021.
- Poor diet
- Lack of exercise
- Unmanaged stress
- Poor or insufficient sleep
- Social isolation
- Exposures to tobacco smoke, pesticides, radiation, traffic-related air pollution and other toxic substances
Several or all of these factors are known to increase risks of heart disease, diabetes, stroke, and neurocognitive disease. Some are also linked to reproductive difficulties, learning disabilities, asthma, birth defects, depression and other mental-health issues.
Traditional risk factors for cardiovascular disease are related to increased risk of cancer, while a heart-healthy lifestyle is linked to a lower risk of future cancer. Factors that reduce these risks (Life’s Simple 7):3Lau ES, Paniagua SM et al. Cardiovascular risk factors are associated with future cancer. Journal of the American College of Cardiology: CardioOncology. 2021 Mar, 3 (1) 48–58.
- Stop smoking
- Eat better
- Get active
- Lose weight
- Manage blood pressure
- Control cholesterol
- Reduce blood sugar
Explore your choices
Choices in treatment
|1||Cohen L, Jefferies A. Anticancer Living: Transform Your Life and Health with the Mix of Six. New York: Viking. 2018. p xii.|
|2||The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, California Environmental Protection Agency, Western States Pediatric Environmental Health Specialty Unit. A Story of Health E-Book. Accessed from the Collaborative on Health and the Environment September 20, 2021.|
|3||Lau ES, Paniagua SM et al. Cardiovascular risk factors are associated with future cancer. Journal of the American College of Cardiology: CardioOncology. 2021 Mar, 3 (1) 48–58.|