When you live with chronic lymphocytic leukemia, you can feel your best by embracing a healthy lifestyle, getting emotional support, and planning ahead with your cancer doctor or oncologist. These steps can help you take charge of problems that can come up, like pain, stress, and treatment side effects.
Here are some simple ways to boost your physical and mental health.
Get a Survivorship Care Plan
Most people with chronic lymphocytic leukemia live for many years. The cancer can grow slowly. In that case, your doctor might choose to track it with tests rather than treat you for it right away. But once they see signs that the cancer is progressing, you’ll probably need treatments on and off for years.
Your doctor can help you stay on top of your ongoing medical care. Ask them to make you a long-term roadmap called a survivorship care plan. The plan could include info like:
- A schedule for when you’ll get follow-up exams
- Other medical tests you might need in the future, like exams that check for long-term effects from your cancer or treatments
- A list of lingering side effects your treatment might cause
- Recommendations for diet and exercise
- Reminders to go to all your appointments with your primary doctor, who will continue to check on your general health
Speak Up About Treatment Side Effects
Your doctor has several ways to treat this type of leukemia, including chemotherapy, targeted drugs, and monoclonal antibodies. Since nearly any cancer treatment can bring on side effects, it’s important to let your care team know as soon as you have any.
Certain side effects, like fatigue and nerve pain, can last for months or years. Other ones can show up years after your treatment has ended. Those are called late side effects. Depending on the treatment you got, they can include high cholesterol, infertility, and heart problems.
Your doctor can prescribe medications that either give you relief from side effects or prevent them from happening in the first place. Ask your doctor about expected side effects and prevention meds before you start a new treatment.
Consider Complementary Therapies
Nonmedical treatment doesn’t replace your treatment plan, but you can get these complementary therapies along with your regular care. Some may ease your symptoms and side effects. Just know that they don’t help everyone.
Check with your doctor before you try one, so they can make sure it’s safe for you. Just a few examples of complementary therapies that may help people with cancer are:
Acupressure. A practitioner rubs or puts pressure on specific parts of your body. It may help control your symptoms.
Acupuncture. A practitioner inserts very thin needles into your body, which may relieve mild pain and certain types of nausea.
Aromatherapy. A practitioner massages essential oils into your body or you breathe them in. The fragrance may ease stress and nausea.
Massage therapy. When a therapist rubs, kneads, and manipulates your muscles and other soft tissues, it can ease stress, anxiety, depression, and pain. It might also make you feel more alert.
Meditation. Studies suggest that when you take time to quietly focus on the present (by paying attention to your breathing, for example), it may ease stress, anxiety, depression, and pain.
Eat a Healthy Diet
It’s extra important to eat well while you’re getting treatment for chronic lymphocytic leukemia.
In general, fill your plate with fruits and vegetables, lean protein, foods with omega-3 fats, and whole grains. If you don’t have the appetite to eat three big meals a day, you can have four or five smaller ones instead.
You can ask your doctor, a nutritionist, or a dietitian to come up with an eating plan that’s right for you. The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society can connect you with a registered dietitian for a free one-on-one consultation.
Remember that it’s always best to get essential nutrients from food, not pills. Don’t take any supplements unless you get your doctor’s OK. There’s a chance that certain vitamins, minerals, and herbs -- even ones labeled “natural” -- could affect your cancer treatment or bring on side effects.
Get Regular Exercise
Routine workouts can bring you lots of benefits. Among the perks, exercise may:
- Give you more energy.
- Lift your mood.
- Ease stress, anxiety, and depression.
If you’re not active already, ask your doctor to help you get started. They can come up with a fitness program that’s safe for you. If you’ve been working out for a while, pace yourself and set healthy exercise goals. Don’t push yourself to the limit or work out as intensely as you did before you got leukemia.
There are lots of great ways to get exercise. Aerobic workouts like walking, jogging, or swimming get your heart pumping. Resistance training exercises like weightlifting build strength, protect your joints, and build bone mass. Even household chores are good for you, since they get you moving.
You could also ask your doctor if mind-body workouts like tai chi and yoga might be right for you. Tai chi combines flowing, balance-building movements with breathwork and meditation. It helps some people with cancer ease pain, fatigue, and sleep problems. Yoga involves holding poses that help you get more flexible while also paying attention to the breath. It may improve anxiety, depression, and stress.
Take Charge of Stress
You might need to juggle all of your usual responsibilities -- like work, school, or parenting -- while you’re managing your leukemia. It’s important to give yourself some “me time.”
Find ways to unwind so you can keep your stress in check. You could:
- Take a few minutes each day to relax in a quiet, peaceful place.
- Do things you enjoy: Read a book, play with your pet, or listen to music.
- Write down what you’re feeling in a journal to help process your emotions.
- Confide in friends and family, in person, over the phone, or by video chat.
- Ask loved ones for help with errands or other chores when you’re low on time and energy.
Join a Support Group
This is a good way to meet other people with leukemia who can understand what you’re going through. In support groups, people share experiences, exchange info, and encourage one another through stressful times.
You can ask your care team where to find a local support group. You can also search for one in your region through the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.
Get Help for Depression or Anxiety
It’s normal to feel down or overwhelmed at times when you’re living with cancer. But if you’re sad, depressed, or anxious every day for 2 weeks or more, reach out to your doctor for help.
Ask them to refer you to a mental health professional, like a psychiatrist or a counselor, who can give you treatments that will improve your mood. Options like talk therapy and medication can help you feel like yourself again.
If you need help finding counseling services, call the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society at 800-955-4572.
Other Ways to Give Yourself TLC
Get quality sleep. Chronic lymphocytic leukemia and its treatments can make you feel tired and more tense at times. Enough shut-eye every night can help you recover your energy and ease stress. Talk to your doctor if you’re having a hard time falling or staying asleep.
If you smoke, quit. You can ask your doctor to help you kick the habit.
Cut back on alcohol if you drink a lot. In general, experts recommend that you limit yourself to one drink a day if you’re a woman and two if you’re a man. Ask your doctor what’s safe for you.
Photo Credit: FatCamera / Getty Images
Leukemia & Lymphoma Society: “Self Care with a Cancer Diagnosis,” “Follow-Up Care and Survivorship,” “Managing Side Effects,” “Find a Support Group Near You,” “Watch and Wait,” “Side Effects,” “Types of Complementary Therapies.”
Lymphoma Research Foundation: “Understanding CLL/SLL Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia and Small Lymphocytic Lymphoma.”
American Cancer Society: “Treating Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia,” “Living as a Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia Survivor,” “Typical Treatment of Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia,” “Which Complementary Methods Are Likely Safe?”
Johns Hopkins: “Leukemia Survivors Program: By Cancer Type.”
CDC: “Alcohol and Public Health.”