Encouraging healthy habits during and after cancer treatment

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Encourage healthy habits in your teen during cancer treatment and after with these expert tips.

Key points

  • Regular exercise, eating properly and getting enough sleep are all important health habits to adopt during cancer treatment and after treatment ends.
  • Your teen should always check with their health-care team before starting a new activity program or changing their diet.
  • Use positive reinforcement to encourage good behaviour and healthy habits.

Encouraging your teenager to adopt healthy habits now helps set your teenager up to live a healthy lifestyle in the future. A great way to teach your teenager healthy habits is to adopt them yourself. If you truly make physical activity and healthy eating a high priority in your life, your teen is much more likely to do the same.

Staying active

It is now understood that active living and regular exercise is important for people with cancer, even while they are in treatment. Of course there may be times when not much activity is possible due to pain, fatigue or other symptoms; but if your teenager is able, and the doctor says it’s OK, encourage them to be physically active.

Sometimes this may mean increasing activities such as walking up the stairs instead of taking the elevator or walking around the block after lunch. At other times, your teen might feel well enough to join a sports team or gym.

Before your teen starts any activity program, have them speak with their doctor to find out which options are safe. Your teenager will also learn about physiotherapy and some options for staying active in the teen program.

Active living and regular exercise is helpful for you too. It can help you relieve stress, manage emotions, boost your energy and sleep better at night. Incorporating exercise into your life will help your teenager learn how to adopt a more active lifestyle.

Eating properly

Your teenager needs to maintain a healthy diet. Eating well is important for everyone, especially teenagers with cancer. Good nutrition is required to replace or repair cells that are destroyed or damaged by cancer or cancer treatment. Good nutrition will also benefit those teenagers with cancer who have issues with weight loss or weight gain. For information on nutrition and cancer, as well as strategies to maintain nutrition while experiencing specific symptoms, please refer to the teen sections on managing symptoms and lifestyle.

Avoid using food (especially unhealthy food) as a means of comforting or rewarding teenagers. Using food as a reward can interfere with your teenager’s ability to regulate their eating according to their level of hunger. It can also cause your teenager to associate unhealthy food with comfort and lead to unhealthy eating patterns and cravings. Alternative rewards can include a special privilege, such as being allowed to spend more time on their phone, playing video games.

You can help everyone in your family to eat healthily in a variety of ways:

  • Set regular meal times as often as possible.
  • Provide healthy diet choices for the whole family.
  • Have healthy snacks that are quick and easy for your teenager to prepare and eat.
  • Limit the amount of junk food in your house.
  • Praise your teenager for making good nutrition choices.
  • Eat healthy meals together as a family.
  • Follow Canada's Food Guide to help put together healthy meals and snacks.

Sleeping well

Getting a good night’s sleep can be difficult for some teenagers with cancer. Here are some ways you can help everyone in your family get a better night’s sleep:

  • Set a regular sleep schedule.
  • Encourage some physical activity during the day.
  • Have your teenager get up at roughly the same time every day, including weekends!
  • Start the morning with sunlight. Morning exposure to sunlight (such as during breakfast) can help a person to fall asleep more easily later in the evening.
  • Limit naps if your teenager is having difficulties with keeping a regular nighttime sleep schedule or with falling asleep easily at bedtime. Naps should be limited to 20-30 minutes at the most and should happen as early in the day as possible.
  • Provide space in the house, other than your teenager’s bedroom, for completing school work, reading, resting during the day and watching TV.
  • Allow for some relaxing, wind-down time before going to bed (30-60 minutes). Encourage your teenager to try some relaxation techniques, listen to music or read before going to bed.
  • Keep a journal. If your teenager or anyone else in the family is waking up and feeling anxious or worried in the night, it can help to write those feelings down. They can share them the next day with someone they trust and use it to develop strategies to deal with their anxiety. A daily journal should be filled out and put away before the nightly wind-down time.
  • Provide a light snack when your teen is hungry in the evening, but avoid large late meals whenever possible.
  • Don’t allow your teen to over sleep. Teens require much more sleep than most people might expect, but too much sleep and too much time in bed have been linked to depression and other psychological difficulties.
  • Limit access to phones and computers one hour before bedtime. The light from computer screens and other electronics can interfere with a teenager's normal sleep pattern and make it hard to fall asleep. Phones should not be kept in your teenager’s bedroom overnight.

Follow this link to information on sleep and cancer from the American Cancer Society.

Use positive reinforcement of good behaviour

Reinforce and strengthen positive behaviours through the use of praise and attention. For example, praising your teenager for keeping up with school work through their cancer treatment, being physically active or demonstrating responsibility will encourage those behaviours. Notice and praise your teenager if they are managing their medication or if they have used relaxation techniques to manage pain. When used consistently, positive reinforcement is a very effective way to change behaviour.

On the other hand, try to avoid reinforcing negative behaviour. This can be difficult, especially when your teen is feeling sick or in pain. For example, if your teenager has fatigue, you may decide that they do not need to help out with any chores at home. This is a form of negative reinforcement; you have removed the responsibility of doing chores completely because of their fatigue. To avoid this, modify the chores instead of letting your child off the hook. For example, when doing the laundry, you or one of your other children can carry the clothes, and your teenager can help by folding them. You will need to use your judgment to figure out your teenager’s capabilities.

Last updated: September 3rd 2019