When you’re going through cancer treatment, you might think your life has been put on hold. Time seems to be spent in limbo—waiting for test results, going back and forth to doctor appointments. But as long as you’re feeling up to it, cancer doesn’t mean you have to forgo all of life’s simple pleasures.
Of course, every person’s situation is unique and your medical team will help determine what is best for you. But in general, here’s what you can do while going through cancer treatment—and when you should play it safe.
1. Can I travel?
The method of transportation will likely determine whether you can travel. “Be careful of plane travel,” says Michael Ryan, Psy.D., clinical director of supportive oncology services at Henry Ford Health. “If you’re on active cancer treatment, your immune system is compromised, making it easier to pick up viruses like COVID-19 when you’re around a lot of people. Also, you may not want to travel to an area where there aren’t any healthcare centers of excellence, in case of an emergency. But driving to a cottage that’s a few hours away is a great option.”
Before going anywhere, however, it’s best to check in with your doctor, especially since how far you can travel depends upon the frequency of your treatment. And if you do travel via any public transportation—whether cab, bus or airplane—please wear a mask to protect yourself.
“It’s also important to note that patients with cancer are at an increased risk of blood clots,” says Geetika Kukreja, M.D., a medical oncologist at Henry Ford Health. “So if traveling by car, take breaks every two hours and walk for a few minutes. During long flights, keep moving your toes and walk in the aisle every two hours or so.”
2. Can I have dessert?
Cake on birthdays, sweets on holidays: we often derive pleasure from these traditions and the occasional indulgence is fine. “You can have dessert in moderation,” says Dr. Kukreja. “Some of my patients think they can’t eat sugar at all, as they’ve heard sugar feeds cancer, but this is a myth. I recommend eating a well-balanced diet that includes proteins, carbohydrates, vegetables and fruits.”
3. Can I have a glass of wine with dinner?
“I would avoid alcohol during chemotherapy,” says Dr. Kukreja. “Alcohol can interact with chemotherapy and the medications used with chemotherapy. It can lead to an increased risk of gastritis, nausea and vomiting. Many chemotherapies can cause liver damage and alcohol can worsen the liver damage.” After you’ve completed treatment, however, moderate drinking is okay—but it’s still best to limit alcohol as much as possible.
4. Can I drink caffeine?
“I advise my patients to drink coffee in moderation during treatment,” says Dr. Kukreja. “Chemotherapy can cause a lot of nausea and heartburn. Excessive caffeine can increase reflux and GERD and can also cause nausea. The other disadvantage of having excessive coffee is that it is a diuretic and can cause dehydration. Many chemotherapy medications are eliminated through the kidneys and liver, so keeping the body well hydrated is crucial.”
5. Can I attend social gatherings?
“Yes, you can attend social gatherings if your white blood count is above a certain level,” says Dr. Kukreja. “Just check with your doctor. You don’t have to be a hermit while on chemotherapy, but take sensible precautions: wear a mask, use hand sanitizer and stay away from those who have symptoms of an illness.”
That said, safer gatherings include those that are outdoors—perhaps with heat lamps in the colder temps—and gatherings with fewer people. If you are worried about socializing, or don’t feel up to going outside of the house, there are ways to connect with people virtually.
“There’s online yoga, online tai chi and a cancer support community called Gilda’s Club that does a lot of online programming,” says Dr. Ryan. “You can still make that social connection and have a community of people who you can talk to and who understand what you’re going through.”
6. Can I just sit and veg on the couch all day?
“All chemotherapies cause different levels of fatigue,” says Dr. Kukreja. “Patients experience the highest level of fatigue for three to four days after chemotherapy. Try to be as active as you can. It can be as little as walking around the house or doing simple chores. To be able to tolerate chemotherapy, you should be up and about for more than 50% of your awake time.”
If a small task seems insurmountable, give yourself small goals. “Try doing things in bite-sized movements,” says Dr. Ryan. “If you want to fold your laundry but folding the entire basket seems like too much, try folding three items and then taking a break. Look for success in small things—it can give you the boost you need to keep going.”
Michael Ryan, Psy.D., is the clinical director of supportive oncology services at Henry Ford Health.
Geetika Kukreja, M.D., is a medical oncologist at Henry Ford Health. She specializes in hematology oncology and sees patients at Henry Ford Hematology Oncology – Hayes Road and Henry Ford Macomb Hospital in Clinton Township.