How to Keep Your Mind Occupied During Cancer Treatment

How to Keep Your Mind Occupied During Cancer Treatment

Reviewed by Jasper Clinical Board

Last updated 5/24/21

Treating cancer is an exercise in patience, endurance, and perseverance, and finding a personal system for managing boredom and discomfort is key. Many treatment sessions—chemo in particular—can drag on, so focusing on activities that are both engaging and soothing is a great tactic. Assembling a variety of boredom and anxiety mitigating activities can help see you through the ups and downs of brain fog, discomfort, and general exhaustion. That said, if you’d rather take a nap or just stare at the wall a little, do that. This time belongs to you, and your gut is the best indicator of what to do with it.

Movies and television are, for many folks, the easiest way to zone out for a few hours. Hulu ($5.99-60.99 monthly) and Netflix ($8.99-15.99 monthly) offer an incredibly wide range of programming, so on a high energy day, you can check out that architecture documentary you’ve been meaning to watch, and during a tougher session you can binge Real Housewives. Both services now offer the option to download as well as stream, which allows you to use your home internet instead of spotty hospital WiFi. 
Set aside some time the day before your first treatment to download plenty of shows at home. Both services offer gift cards, so caregivers can help you build an anti-boredom arsenal. If you’re at a loss for what to watch, try scrolling through Rotten Tomatoes, Roger Ebert's Great Movies, or one of Vulture's excellent best-of lists.


Before we were all addicted to our screens, books were the best way to get transported to another world for a few hours. Reclaim a bit of those simpler days with a paperback novel (hardcovers can be surprisingly heavy to hold up). Checking out the staff picks at independent bookstores like McNally Jackson or Powell's Books is a great way to find interesting titles, as is picking through best-of lists like the ones put out by Goodreads
If you’re more comfortable reading on-screen (and there is a good argument to be made for having less to carry), invest in a Kindle to bring to treatment or read on your phone or tablet, but be sure to turn on Night Mode to cut down on blue light exposure, which can be rough on sleep and wakefulness signals in your brain. If you do use an electronic device, try enlarging the font—even if you have perfect vision, hours of squinting can take a toll.


Getting lost in a good book can be even more immersive than television, but eyestrain is real, and hardcovers can weigh a treatment bag down. Audible ($14.95 monthly) has a vast selection of audio books and programming: current best sellers, classic novels, podcasts, dedicated sleep and wellness programs, and much more. Digital public libraries are another excellent choice, offering plenty of free audiobooks to download. Everything can be accessed from a smartphone, and smart features like button-free mode and optional read-along text upgrade the experience. 
If podcasts and music are more your thing, Spotify ($9.99 monthly for ad-free premium membership) has an incredible range of content, which you can browse in-app or search for after reading reviews and guides like Esquire's Best Podcasts of 2020.


Shifting mental gears during long hours of treatment can break the time up into more manageable chunks (anyone who has been on a long haul flight can attest to this). Supplement screen time with journaling in a cheerful—and lap sized—notebook by AllSwell ($24), or jot down notes in one of the pocket-sized options from Goods for the Study. A fabulous notebook requires an equally wonderful pen, like the gorgeous and ergonomic LAMY Safari Pastel ($20-37).


Coloring and activity books can be particularly soothing for anxiety, working on the brain in the same manner as meditation by bringing your attention to the present moment. There are tons of wonderful titles in the genre, like the The Mindfulness Coloring Book ($6.48), which uses theories of art therapy to set you up with a soothing and therapeutic drawing sesh. 
For more open-ended visual creativity, Fill in the Blank: An Inspirational Sketchbook ($18.95) invites guided doodling and sketching—no previous art experience required. And don’t forget the colored pencils! Prismacolor's set of 24 ($19.69) are soft, smooth, and well packaged for travel.


Kakuro is a logic game that is like a mathematical translation of a crossword puzzle—if you like Sudoku, you’ll likely enjoy the numerical challenge. Kakuro Cross Sums ($6.79) contains 300 individual puzzles, scaled for difficulty (easy, medium, hard), which is important on days when the brain fog hits hard. If you’re more into sampling different kinds of puzzles, Tricky Logic Puzzles for Adults ($9.99) includes a variety of brain workouts, from logic grids and code-breaking to Sudoku.


Mindfulness and meditation apps abound, and there is abundant evidence supporting the positive impact of mindfulness on cancer recovery. But which apps are the best—especially for using in semi-public? Headspace ($70 annually) offers plentiful structure and guidance, which is great for less experienced meditators, and has short “on the go” sessions that are excellent for occupying quick bits of waiting (aka worrying) time. Uber-popular Calm ($70 annually) is more open ended, ideal for those with confidence and experience in a mindfulness practice, and includes breathwork, sleep support, and music. Insight Timer (free download with optional in-app purchases) has lots of content in a wide range of styles, from guided sits to nature sounds--and they’re working on adding yoga classes in the near future. 

Reach Out

If you’ve never been in a group text chat before, this is the time to start. If you feel shy asking your friends or family to participate, enlist a trusted bestie or family member to organize the group, and send a message letting everyone know when you’re going in for treatment. The small dopamine hits you’ll get from every ping can raise your spirits while you’re in the treatment chair, and group chatting will save you from having to repeat info to everyone who wants to know how it’s going. Because friends and loved ones often want to be supportive but don’t know exactly what to do or what tone is appropriate to take, consider telling everyone what would make you smile--and be this specific: “Hey guys, I know it’s ridiculous, but I honestly just need to see a lot of dog memes right now.”     

The content on this website is intended to provide the best possible information for you, but should not be considered—or used as a substitute for—medical advice. If you have questions about your diagnosis or treatment, please contact your health care provider(s). For questions or comments about this content, please email us at