When it comes to fighting cancer, chemotherapy and radiation are often considered the first line of defence. However, chemotherapy not only targets cancer cells but also healthy cells in the body. The cells that line the intestines and mouth, as well as the hair follicles, fall into this category. When the chemicals and drugs kill the diseased cells, they also end up killing healthy cells, thus compromising your immunity. This makes people undergoing chemotherapy prone to infections and diseases. So keeping in mind a few dos and don’ts can go a long way in helping you cope with the rough regime of chemotherapy.
On World Cancer Day, which falls on February 4th every year, Dr Roopesh N, a skilled Gynaec-oncologist at Fortis Hospitals, Cunningham Road, Bengaluru and Delhi-based oncologist Dr Surendra Kaul recommend how to take care of yourself while undergoing chemotherapy.
Eat natural foods rich in antioxidants
While one’s immune response is at an all-time low during chemotherapy treatment, it is critical to refill the system with food and the right antioxidants that can help the body become healthy again. Fruits, liquids, and herbs such as ginger, garlic, and aloe vera can help you respond better to medications by reducing inflammation. Don’t forget berries and herbal teas that can also help. But before you embark on a specific diet regime, have a detailed discussion with a dietician about the right foods to eat.
Maintain an active lifestyle
Chemotherapy can be draining. You might not have the strength or stamina to go for a jog, run, or go to the gym. But staying active will help the body regain its health and vigour. If nothing else, train your mind to follow a simple regime of getting out of bed and being ready for the day. The simple act of tidying your bedroom and sitting in the living room with a cup of green tea in the morning, or watering the plants on your balcony, can do wonders to boost your mental state. Cultivate a new hobby like gardening, painting, reading, even or listening to music. You can also consider meditation and yoga.
It’s okay to rest
It is important not to over-exert while undergoing treatment. Chemotherapy can cause fatigue, nausea, and mood swings—and so, physically strenuous and mentally exhausting activities must be avoided. Fatigue is the most common side effect experienced by those undergoing chemotherapy. So, get plenty of rest and avoid pushing yourself too hard. You might be feeling good enough to go for a long walk or work around the house, but look out for signals that tell you that your body requires rest. Remember, it may take some time to get back to your regular energy levels. And, it’s absolutely okay to ask for help and rest it out.
Maintain high levels of hygiene
With a serious illness such as cancer, it is important to keep infections at bay. The immune system is anyway compromised and you are more susceptible to infections and disorders, so it is important for you to maintain good hygiene. Always wash the vegetables and fruits before you consume them. If possible, switch to organic produce—it has fewer chemicals. As far as possible, consume food that is fresh. Don’t let your fridge become a storehouse of foods packed with preservatives. Your skin is bound to be dry while undergoing chemotherapy. Opt for a good moisturiser, especially something that is certified vegan. Make sunscreen your new BFF.
Avoid smoking and drinking
Smoking can cause hypoxia, or a lack of oxygen, in certain parts of the body. Chemotherapy effectiveness can be reduced due to hypoxia. Smoking lowers immunity, slows wound healing, and increases your risk for other health conditions. Also, even in tiny doses, alcohol can exacerbate the negative effects of chemotherapy. Experts say having an occasional glass of wine or beer may not be detrimental. But it is always advisable to consult your doctor before drinking. Too much alcohol consumption can lead to dehydration, diarrhoea, and mouth sores. Also, since chemotherapy drugs stress the liver, it is advisable to avoid alcohol which also puts extra pressure on the liver.
Be mindful of what you eat
Stay away from undercooked and uncooked foods such as sushi, sashimi, blue cheese, oysters, raw eggs, salsas, and even honey. Infection-causing microorganisms can be found in these kinds of foods, making it difficult for a person to fight infections as the immune system is already compromised. Also, chemotherapy can sometimes lead to a loss of appetite due to nausea, mouth sores, or fatigue. But it is important to eat. So have smaller meals at shorter intervals. Talk to your dietician and set up a meal plan for the week, so that you can pack maximum nutrition in simple ways. Avoid eating raw greens and acidic or spicy foods. Chemotherapy increases the sensitivity in the mouth and throat, so stick to light and nourishing meals that can be digested easily. Carbonated beverages are a big no-no.
Dehydration during chemotherapy is common. It’s important to stay hydrated. Water therapy also aids in the reduction of negative effects of chemo. But make it a point to avoid caffeinated drinks. Always carry a water bottle with you. If plain water is not your thing, add a squeeze of lemon or some slices of fresh cucumber and celery. Hydration does not only mean H2O. You can up the ante and include soups, broths, and de-caffeinated drinks in your diet. Even water-rich produce such as watermelon, cucumbers, and apples can help replace fluids that are lost during chemotherapy treatment.
Seek counselling and be positive
Mood swings, despair, irritability, and anxiousness are all part and parcel of being diagnosed with cancer. Remember, there is no shame in seeking help when you need it. Talk to your doctor as often as you feel like. Or, seek help from a therapist to tide yourself over difficult days. Make notes to discuss with your counsellor, and let your friends and family in. Bask in the comfort they can offer. And don’t give up on yourself however hard the road may look. It may not be the best of times, but you can stop it from becoming the worst of times. Smile, breathe, and stay calm. And, most importantly, let your mind and body relax at their own pace.