Having cancer and undergoing cancer treatment can be tough on just about every part of your body, mind and soul.
It can be difficult to know how to help keep your physical, mental, emotional and spiritual being healthy, both during and after your treatment. But it is important you acknowledge all your needs and find the best way to care for your whole self, and not just one part of you. This section is about how to care for yourself and tips on how to stay active, eat well and cope with your feelings. It includes information on:
- Complementary therapies
- Physical wellbeing: eating well and staying active
- Emotional wellbeing
- Intimacy and sexuality
Many women with ovarian cancer are interested in trying complementary therapies. These are natural therapies used alongside mainstream/conventional cancer treatments (e.g. chemotherapy, radiotherapy), which aim to treat both mind and body. Examples of commonly used complementary therapies include massage, mindfulness meditation and acupuncture.
These therapies have not been scientifically proven to treat or cure cancer. However, a few have been shown to help some people feel and cope better with their cancer and its treatments. They work on helping your mind and body feel better. Carefully chosen complementary therapies can help to:
- Manage symptoms and side effects – including nausea,
- Hot flushes, dry mouth, pain and fatigue
- Relieve stress, anxiety and sleeplessness
- Encourage an overall feeling of wellbeing
Eating a variety of healthy foods and staying active can help improve your physical and overall wellbeing during and after your cancer treatment. Eating well and being active can help:
- lift your energy levels and mood
- you to cope better with the side effects of treatment
- wounds and tissue to heal after surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy improve your body’s ability to fight infection
- try to keep your weight at a healthy level.
For eating tips to help overcome nausea, vomiting, constipation and diarrhoea, see ‘Managing your symptoms and side effects’ [LINK to this section]. It includes simple ideas to help reduce fatigue, which is another important part of your overall wellbeing.
Healthy eating during cancer treatment and beyond is all about eating a wide range of nourishing foods that can help you recover quickly and keep your weight at a healthy level. There are generally no special foods you need to eat or avoid. But cancer and its treatment can often make healthy eating a challenge – especially when you are feeling sick, are constipated, are in pain, have lost your appetite, or are simply too tired to eat. In these situations, it is important not to become too worried about only eating the healthiest foods. In time, you can get back to eating a well-balanced diet.
It is also very important to try and stay hydrated during your treatment, especially if you are having chemotherapy. Water and herbal teas are good. Some people find speaking to a dietitian helpful. Ask your GP or specialist for a referral. If you have a sore mouth due to side effects of your treatment, it may be best to avoid spicy and citrus foods.
Beware of ‘anti-cancer’ diets
Beware of any special diets, foods or supplements that are promoted as being especially beneficial for people with cancer or claim to ‘cure’ cancer. None of these claims have been scientifically proven, and some can cause harm. Excluding food groups you need for health, energy and good immune function may interfere with the success of your treatment, or cause you to lose too much weight.
Enjoy being active
Being active helps boost your energy, decrease fatigue, relieve stress, digestion and constipation, increase your appetite, and may reduce anxiety and depression, and increase your general wellbeing. These are all very important during your cancer treatment and when recovering. Always talk to your doctor or physiotherapist if you are unsure if certain activities will still be okay for you, or if you are unsure about what level of activity you can start. Ovarian cancer surgery often means going through an early menopause. This may result in weakened core muscles and possible weight gain. Exercise has been proven to enhance mood, improve sleep, control weight gain, protect against heart disease and maintain bone health. So, it may help counteract some of the side effects after surgery.
Walking, swimming, cycling and water exercise classes are gentle activities many women feel comfortable with when they are recovering from ovarian cancer. Yoga and tai chi can be especially beneficial for your body and mind. Whichever activity you choose, you will need to start slowly and gradually increase your activity level. If you’re looking for a new activity to try as you continue to recover, it’s ideal to enjoy being active for at least 30 minutes a day on most days of the week. Your doctor, physiotherapist or exercise physiologist can advise you on the ideal amount and intensity of activity for you.
“There is growing evidence to suggest that regular exercise after a cancer diagnosis can reduce the chance of some cancers coming back.”
Cancer Council Australia
Being diagnosed with ovarian cancer is the beginning of an emotional journey with no rules. For some women, the early days of shock, anger, panic and numbness are the most frightening. Over time, these intense feelings of distress usually begin to ease. As time goes on, different emotions are likely to surface at different times. The phase of your treatment, your physical health and the way you have previously coped in difficult times will affect the way you feel. Your family, financial and work situations will also influence how you feel. The intensity and persistence of emotions varies greatly from one woman to another and there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to feel.
Depression and anxiety are common feelings for many women. This may happen during your treatment or for some time after your treatment finishes. Seek medical advice if your feelings of sadness, anxiety and depression are persistent. Read the Where to get help section for more details about how to get further support.
Working through your feelings
However you feel, try and acknowledge any strong emotions and allow yourself the opportunity to experience them. Don’t shut them out or put on a brave face – it is likely they will just keep simmering away. You may find sharing your concerns with a family member, a friend or a member of your healthcare team helpful. Saying something like ‘I am feeling really alone and afraid because …’ can help begin supportive conversations; whereas withdrawing from friends and family can leave them feeling unable to help.
Women sometimes report the friends they expected to be most supportive are not always the ones who end up being the most supportive. This does not necessarily mean they do not care. Certain friends and family may be better able to cope with what is happening for you and support you better than others. Support sometimes comes from unexpected places. Let your healthcare team know how you feel. They will want to help and if they know you are struggling, they can guide you towards support.
“Surround yourself with people who make you laugh and fill you with joy. To me that is the essence of it. I think laughter is essential, I would suggest everyone gets a dog, undivided love 24/7, it works for me!” – Jan
Call Ovarian Cancer Australia on 1300 660 334 for further information about support groups and networks that can help you connect with other women in similar circumstances.
Spirituality is about your personal sense of purpose and peace, and your beliefs about the meaning of life.
There are different ways to express your spirituality. For many people, it is through their connection with other people, with nature, and possibly with a higher power. For some people, organised religion provides a way to express spirituality.
It is normal for a diagnosis of cancer to both intensify and cause upheaval in your spiritual life. You may want to talk to a chaplain, minister, priest, rabbi, Inman or other religious leader. Or you may want to explore your own ways of connecting more deeply with others and the world. This may include spending more time in nature, appreciating art and music, reading more widely about spiritual ideas, meditating, or writing in a journal.
Your sexuality is an important part of who you are: it’s about your self-image, how you express yourself sexually, and your sexual feelings for other people. It is not just about having sex. Ovarian cancer and its treatment can profoundly affect the way you feel about yourself and your body, your sexual desire and your sexual relationship with others, whether or not you have a partner.
What can help?
Understanding these changes, communicating about them openly and finding ways to ease anxiety can help you feel better.
- Communicating openly about our sexuality can be very difficult, but it can be so important. Tell your partner how you feel. You may be worried having sex again will hurt or that you are no longer attractive. Voicing these concerns allows you both to do something about them.
- Ask your partner how they feel. They may also be worried about being intimate. They may have concerns about upsetting you emotionally or physically hurting you.
- Plan intimacy for times when you think you will have the most energy.
- There are many ways of being intimate and enjoying physical closeness: touching, stroking, cuddling, kissing, massaging or simply holding each other can be satisfying additions to or alternatives to sex.
- Take it slowly and use creativity to work out what feels good. Any problems usually get better with time and practice.
- Ask your doctor about suitable options for you to help improve your libido, vaginal dryness and other symptoms resulting from surgical menopause.
- Talk to a counsellor, sex therapist or a doctor with specialist training in sexuality and cancer.
Rebuilding your body image is an important part of your emotional and sexual healing. How you feel about your body and yourself as a woman affects your confidence, your sense of attractiveness and your sexual desire. Massage, touch, relaxation techniques, gentle exercise, and programs such as Look Good … Feel Better (1800 650 960 or www.lgfb.org.au) can help put you back in touch with your body, raise your self-esteem, and improve your overall sense of wellbeing.