home icon

Live a Normal Life While Battling Cancer

Maintaining a routine is important when dealing with cancer

Adapted from National Institutes of Health | May 11, 2012

Based on content from the NIH publication, “Taking Time: Support For People With Cancer.

When you have cancer, living each day to the fullest means:

  • Staying involved in the duties and pleasures of daily life.
  • Returning to work if possible.
  • Making plans for the future.

Is living with cancer the biggest challenge you have ever faced?

For most people, it is.

Dealing with cancer and facing thoughts of death is a life-changing event for most people. For many, it can be a time to minimize regrets and make new priorities.

Try to live each day as normally as you can. Enjoy the simple things you like to do, like petting your cat or watching a sunset. Take pleasure in big events, like a friend's wedding or your grandson's high school graduation.

Every season brings its own joy.
 — Spanish proverb

Keeping Up With Your Daily Routine

If you feel well enough, keep up with your daily routine. This includes going to work, spending time with family and friends, taking part in hobbies and even going on trips.

At the same time, give yourself time to be with your feelings about cancer. Also, be careful about acting cheerful when you are not. Avoiding your feelings may make you feel worse, not better. (To learn more, go to "Sharing Your Feelings About Cancer.")

Use these questions to think about how you want to spend your time.
  • Who do I like to be with?
  • Who makes me laugh?
  • How do I want to spend my time?
  • What makes me feel happy?
  • What are my passions?
  • What types of things do I enjoy the most?
  • What types of things do I like the least?
  • Is there something I want to do that I've never tried?

Fun

Sometimes people with cancer try new, fun things that they have never done before. Have you always wanted to ride in a hot air balloon or go deep-sea fishing? What fun things have you always wanted to try, but have never taken the time to do? A young woman with cancer put it this way, "Too often we fill up our lives with too many serious activities and neglect doing the silly things that keep us sane."

Try to do something just for fun, not because you have to do it. But be careful not to tire yourself out. Some people get depressed when they are too tired. Make sure to get enough rest so you feel strong and can enjoy these fun activities.

The journey is the reward. — 
Tao Proverb

Physical Activities

Many people find they have more energy when they take part in physical activities such as swimming, walking, yoga and biking. They find that these types of activities help them keep strong and make them feel good. A bit of exercise every day:
  • Improves your chances of feeling better.
  • Keeps your muscles toned.
  • Speeds your healing.
  • Decreases fatigue.
  • Controls stress.
  • Increases appetites.
  • Decreases constipation.
  • Helps free your mind of bad thoughts.

Even if you have never done physical activities before, you can start now. Choose something you think you'd like to do, and get your doctor's OK to try it. You can do some exercises even if you have to stay in bed.

Start slowly, doing an activity for just 5 or 10 minutes a day. When you feel strong enough, you can slowly increase this time to 30 minutes or more. Let your doctors and nurses know if you have pain when you do this activity.

Working

People with cancer often want to get back to work. Their jobs not only give them an income but also a sense of routine. Work helps people feel good about themselves.

Before you go back to work, talk with your doctor as well as your boss. Make sure you are well enough to do your job. You may need to work fewer hours or do your job in a different way. Some people feel well enough to work while they are having chemotherapy or radiation treatment. Others need to wait until their treatments are over.

Talking With Your Boss and Co-Workers

You might find that your boss and co-workers treat you differently than they did before you had cancer. They may say nothing because they don't know what to say and don't want to hurt your feelings. Or they may not know if you want to talk about your cancer or would rather just focus on work.

If you can, use humor or make a joke. Humor can help break the ice and make people feel more at ease. Let your boss and co-workers know if, and when, you want to talk about your cancer. You may find that it's easier than you thought it would be.

Your Legal Rights

Some people with cancer face roadblocks when they try to go back to work or get a new job. Even those who had cancer many years ago may still have trouble. Employers may not treat them fairly because they believe myths that aren't true. They may believe cancer can be spread from person to person or people with cancer take too many sick days. Some employers also think that people with cancer are poor insurance risks.
It is against the law to discriminate against (treat unfairly) workers who have disabilities, like cancer. These national laws protect your rights as a worker:
  • The Federal Rehabilitation Act of 1973.
  • The Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990.

Most states also have laws that protect the rights of people with cancer. You can take legal action (sue) if you think that you are not being hired for a job because of your cancer. Here are some ways to learn more about your legal rights:
  • Talk with your social worker and ask about laws in your state. He or she can also give you the name of the state agency that protects your rights as an employee.
  • Contact your state's Department of Labor or Office of Civil Rights.
  • Contact the office of your state's representative or senator. You can find out who represents your district and how to contact this person by going on the Internet or visiting a library.
  • Visit the Web site for the National Cancer Institute's State Cancer Legislative Database Program.

You may also want to learn about the benefits you can get as a person with cancer. One is the Family and Medical Leave Act. This law allows most workers to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid time to deal with certain family and medical problems. To learn more, speak with the Human Resource office where you work. You can also contact the U.S. Department of Labor.

Some people can't return to their jobs because of their cancer. For instance, you may no longer be able to lift heavy boxes if that task is a part of your job. If you can't do the work you did before, contact your state Rehabilitation Program. Ask about training programs that teach you the skills you need for other kinds of work. To learn more, look under the state government section in the blue pages of your phone book or check your state's website.

Handling Money Worries

The financial challenges that people with cancer and their families face are very real. During an illness, you may find it hard to find the time or energy to review your options. Yet it's important to keep your family financially healthy.

For hospital bills, you or your loved one may want to talk with a hospital financial counselor. You may be able to work out a monthly payment plan or even get a reduced rate. You may also want to stay in touch with the insurance company to make sure certain treatment costs are covered.

Thinking About the Future

You may find it helpful to look beyond your treatment and think about what you want to do when you feel well again. Many people find it helpful to set goals. Setting goals gives them something to think about and work toward. Goals can also help people focus on what they want to achieve next week, next year, and into the future. As one man with cancer said: "I decided I would travel to Europe when my therapy was over. So I used treatment time to research the countries I wanted to visit and read first-person accounts written by other travelers. I bought a new camera and learned how to use it. I even brushed up on my French!"

Goals can also help you get you through hard times. Many cancer patients have done much better than their doctors expected because they wanted to go to a wedding or meet their new grandchild.

It is wise for people with cancer to "put their house in order." Think about making a will and talk about end-of-life choices with your loved ones. You may also want to put your photos into albums, write down your family history, and sort through some of the things you own.

Putting your house in order is not the same as giving up. In fact, it is a way that people with cancer can live each day to the fullest and think about the future. These things make sense for everyone, sick or well.

If you wait for tomorrow, tomorrow comes. If you don't wait for tomorrow, tomorrow comes.
 — Senegalese Proverb

Advance Directives

People with cancer face a lot of choices about the future. Advance directives are legal papers that allow you to decide ahead of time how you want to be treated when you can't make decisions for yourself. They help your loved ones and doctors know what to do if, and when, you can't tell them yourself.

Setting up an advance directive is not giving in. Making such decisions at this time keeps you in control. You are making your wishes known for all to follow. This can help you worry less about the future and live each day to the fullest.

Advance directives include:
  • A will to divide your money and things you own among your heirs.
  • A living will to let people know what kind of medical care you want if you are close to death.
  • A durable power of attorney to appoint a person (a "health care proxy") to make medical decisions for you when you can't make them yourself.

For more information, contact the Cancer Information Service at (800) 422-6237, by TTY (for deaf and hard of hearing callers) at (800) 332-8615, or through the Internet.

After treatment is over

Once you finish treatment, you may expect life to return to the way it was before cancer. In truth, it can take a while for life to settle down. This can be a hard time. While you adjust to life after treatment, you may find it helpful to read Facing Forward: Life After Cancer Treatment.

Summing Up: Living Each Day

Living with cancer means not only looking at death but also how to live the rest of your life — whether it is long or short. Take care of daily duties and do things that are fun. Both are needed for a full life. And when you can, think about what makes life rich and meaningful for you.

Many people who have cancer feel that living each day to the fullest means:
  • Staying involved in the duties and pleasures of daily life.
  • Returning to work if possible.
  • Making plans for the future.