10 Ways to Practise Self-Care with Cancer: Simple ways to put yourself first

Woman practises self-care with cancer reading her tablet in bed.

Self-care with cancer isn’t discussed very often, but it’s an important part of your well-being, health, and recovery. We explore some simple & easy ways to start prioritising yourself right now. 

In honour of World Emoji Day, we asked our Facebook followers to tell us what emojis they’d use to describe their experiences with cancer.

Some people gave us sad, tired or sick looking faces. Others gave smiles, fist-bumps, and signs of strength. One woman submitted an image of a carousel horse – the kind you’d ride at the fairground. We asked her what it represented; was it the flurry of activity? The stress of having cancer?

In reply, she told us that, to her, cancer felt like “when you are on a fairground ride and you want it to stop but it won’t. The feeling in the pit of your stomach that never quite goes away.” Even still, she said, she could always “find something to smile about.” 

The more we thought about it, the more we realised that a carousel is a great analogy for the cancer experience.

Cancer can feel like a whirlwind. And like a carousel ride, sometimes the cancer journey can make you feel out of control. Equally, cancer is full of ups and downs. There are moments of real fear, stress, and worry. And there are moments of joy, happiness, and gratitude. Sometimes, you can feel both at once: a pit in your stomach, and a smile on your face.

In the middle of this cancer “carousel” ride, it’s important to take a little bit of time to focus on yourself. Self-care is an important part of managing your stress levels and your overall well-being. When we manage stress, we help our bodies to feel better physically, and we are better able to cope with what’s in front of us.

Take this as your invitation to prioritise yourself.

With that, here are ten simple ways to practise self-care with cancer. 

Practising Self-Care With Cancer

1. Slow down and find quiet time.man using laptop on sofa

Life after a cancer diagnosis can be frantic – especially as you figure out your treatment options and meet with your healthcare team. Androulla Pieri, a breast cancer survivor, and dear friend of ours at Live Better With, recommends that you try to slow down as much as possible after your diagnosis. “Focus on thinking calmly and slowing down the pace of things,” says Androulla. “Yes, you need to cope, but if you usually worry yourself sick because that’s your way of coping, don’t do it. Just focus on one day at a time or even one minute at a time.” The more you can build in time for rest and pause, the calmer you’ll feel.

2.  Do activities you enjoy.

hands knitting

A cancer diagnosis doesn’t have to spell the end of all your favourite hobbies. Think about what you love to do, and make time for it. Could you bring your knitting to an appointment? Or spend some time reading every day? Share your priorities with your friends and family so that they can help you to schedule in activities that are meaningful to you.

3. Try starting a cancer journal.man writing in cancer journal

Some cancer patients find that writing in a cancer journal is extremely helpful. Having space to record your thoughts and worries can help to calm your mind and lower your stress levels. If you’re thinking about keeping a cancer journal, we’ve gathered up a few tips and suggestions to help you get started.

4. Listen to a podcast.

Woman listening to Cancer Companion podcast

If you’re spending time in bed, driving to appointments, or sitting on the chemo ward, you might try listening to podcasts or audiobooks. You can find audiobooks through a company called Audible, on the iTunes store, or at your local library. Try revisiting your favourite books from childhood or discovering new genres. Where podcasts are concerned, you can find a wide range of different shows on the iTunes Store and Stitcher. We love On Being (calming and interesting), Serial (for those who like crime stories) and the TEDTalks audio podcast (for those days we need a little inspiration). There’s also our Cancer Companion Podcast – available every Thursday, and packed full of helpful tips, stories, and advice from fellow cancer patients and experts.

5. Eat nourishing foods.Healthy food

Eating during cancer is important, but it can also be hard to manage when you’re feeling sick. We’ve written a two-part blog series on eating well with cancer. It’s full of tips for coping with specific side effects, and we’ve included a list of food suggestions for each specific symptom or side effect type. You can also explore our Eating Well Guide and our Eat Better With Cancer cookbook (which is written by cancer patients who know exactly what it’s like to feel completely put off food!)

6. Do a little exercise.Woman doing gentle yoga

Exercise can seem daunting if you’re spending lots of days on the sofa, but it’s still an important part of recovery, healing, and well-being. Gentle yoga is a great way to get yourself moving without a lot of strain. Dr. Yoga’s fantastic book, Yoga for Breast Cancer Survivors and Patients includes helpful yoga sequences for every stage of the cancer journey. You can also read through our Exercising with Cancer Guide for some additional tips.


7. Spend time with loved ones.Couple relaxing with cancer

Amanda Luke was recently diagnosed with cancer, and is just beginning a long course of treatment. We spoke to Amanda for our second Cancer Companion Podcast episode, and when we asked her what advice she would give to other cancer patients, she told us about how important and fulfilling it was to visit with her friends and family. “You go through life worrying about insignificant things which don’t matter. To have a life with cancer, you appreciate things more,” Amanda told us. “You sail through life not making time to see people because you’re too busy. But now, you make the time.”


8. Prioritise sleep.

man sleeping

Sleep is really important for our bodies and minds. But when you’re feeling ill or anxious and spending lots of time on the sofa to begin with, finding deep and restful sleep can be difficult. Many of our community members love spending a bit of time colouring before bed as a way to calm the mind and distract from the day’s events. Using essential oils or sleep sprays can also help to create a comforting, peaceful environment.

9. Try mindfulness.

You’ve probably seen lots about “mindfulness” in the shops and newspapers recently. Mindfulness has become increasingly popular, and that’s because so many people find that it works! The idea of meditating might seem funny, and perhaps a bit unachievable, but we promise that it’s worth trying. The benefits of practising mindfulness include reduced stress, better immune function, better well-being, and a boost to focus and memory. If you’re experiencing chemo brain, mindfulness might help you to feel a little bit better. There are several lovely books on mindfulness that are accessible and simple to understand – perfect if you’re trying mindfulness for the first time, or re-starting your personal practice.

10. Ask for help.Friends helping each other

When we spoke with Sarah-Jane Phillips and Chris Harvey for our Cancer Companion Podcast, both told us about the importance of asking for help during the cancer journey. As a two-time cancer survivor (Sarah) and current melanoma patient (Chris), both know what they’re talking about. “Don’t be frightened to ask for help,” Chris said. “I don’t like people helping me – I’m the person who’s always helping somebody else. But sometimes it’s got to be your turn to ask for help. And you’d be surprised how welcoming people are once you’ve asked them.” Sarah agreed. “Accept all offers of help,” she told us. “Especially when it comes to accepting meals. Don’t try to be a martyr or think you can do it all yourself. Just take it easy and make the most of any help that is offered to you.” And if you’re finding it difficult to request what you need, confide in a close friend or loved one and ask them to help you coordinate efforts between your friends and family. Sometimes it’s easier to leave the organising to someone else, and your community will appreciate knowing exactly what – and how – you need to be supported.

Be kind to yourself

However you do it, taking the time to care for yourself is an important part of well-being and recovery. Self-care during cancer isn’t a luxury; it’s a necessary part of your happiness and health.

Enjoy the process of finding out what feels nice to you, and then ask for the support you need to incorporate those activities into your daily routine. Remember: you matter, and your needs matter, even as you’re managing a cancer diagnosis.

And if you’re caring for a loved one with cancer, speak with them about self-care. Ask them how they’d like to enjoy calming, caring activities in their day-to-day lives. And then, help them to realise these goals. 


9 Replies to “10 Ways to Practise Self-Care with Cancer: Simple ways to put yourself first”

  1. I survived cancer last year, did a lot of sport and ate protein bars to gain weight. I still suffer after one year by side effects. My nerves are destroyed, I have neuralgia etc…and I wish, I could find any informations, how to heal after cancer. We are left alone after the Chemo 🙁

  2. I am a cancer survivor ! Every day I am thankful we live in a country where we get free chemo free radium & always remind myself if I had lived in a third world country I would have been sent home to die ! For the treatment I received from our NHS I will be forever grateful !! X

  3. I totally agree with all your replies… yes we are so lucky to have the NHS to help us and the cancer care nurses are brilliant but the support stops so suddenly. …. I don’t think just one follow up call about a week after is enough and more could be done after to give you coping skills if you need it on how to deal with friends, family and colleagues as I felt I became a councillor to them to deal with the shock when it was bad enough trying to deal with it myself. I hate asking for help and I live alone which makes it much harder than perhaps if one has more supportive family or partner around.
    All I can say is thank goodness we are still here …. and good luck to you all for the future Pips x

  4. I have peritoneal cancer have had surgery and chemotherapy I wasn’t told about chemo head so thank you for this article I wondered what was happening to me glad to find I am still normal and that it will get better my chemo finished first week in September.

  5. Unfortunately, my mother was just diagnosed with cancer. She is wanting to make sure she takes the best care of herself possible during her treatment. Thank you for suggesting that exercise will still be an important part of her recovery. Hopefully, she can find the best treatment possible and we can all her through this.

  6. Thanks for these tips for practicing self-care with cancer. I like that you mentioned you should still try to do exercise, even like gentle yoga. I’m interested to learn if the exercise you do depends on what kind of treatment you are receiving.

  7. Thanks for mentioning how keeping a journal can help you lower stress levels when dealing with cancer. My wife recently discovered that she has breast cancer, and she hasn’t been able to sleep for the past few days. I will let her know about keeping a journal and help her find a place that can help her deal with her treatment in a professional manner.

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