3 Steps for Cancer Survivors to Live Healthier

healthy mom and daughter

If you are or know a cancer survivor, you join a large — and growing — community. Advances in treatments and detection have led to survivors living longer today than ever before. There are now an estimated 14.5 million survivors in the United States, with that number expected to increase to 18 million by 2020.

There’s a lot of emerging research looking at ways to help individuals diagnosed with cancer live both longer and healthier. To mark National Cancer Survivor's Day this Sunday, here are three key steps research is suggesting can help survivors:

1. Avoid sitting around too much; get active

Evidence is now clear that, like the general population, being active can improve physical health and well-being. An emerging but strong body of research, much of it focusing on colorectal cancers, suggests activity may lengthen survival and improve survivors’ quality of life.

Guidelines from the American College of Sports Medicine encourage cancer survivors to avoid inactivity, even during treatment. Survivors should aim to get the same amount of exercise the government recommends for the general population: 150 minutes per week of moderate intensity aerobic exercise. Survivors should also do muscle training and flexibility exercises weekly.

Getting there:

  • Trials consistently report that physical activity and or structured exercise are safe and feasible for patients, both during and after treatment. Individuals who are undergoing treatment or have recently should discuss exercise risks with their health care team, experts advise.
  • Avoid being too sedentary: work your way to 30 minutes of moderate activity daily.

2. Eat well

AICR recommends that cancer survivors follow the same recommendations as those for primary prevention. That includes avoiding sugary beverages and eating plenty of fruits, vegetables and other plant foods. It also includes eating 18 ounces or less of red meat a week and avoiding processed meats, along with drinking only moderate amounts of alcohol, if any.

Studies have shown that following these and other AICR recommendations for prevention can lengthen survival. That makes sense, because a diet for cancer prevention can also help reduce the risk of heart disease, a leading cause of death among survivors. A cancer preventive diet also helps reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes and other chronic diseases.

It’s possible a plant-focused diet could also prevent secondary cancers. More studies are needed to understand exactly what foods and dietary patterns consistently help survivors. Many studies do suggest diet does help.  

Getting there:

  • Fill 2/3 or more of your plate with vegetables, fruits, whole grains and other plant foods.
  • Make 1/3 or less of your plate fish, poultry, lean red meat, cheese or other animal protein.

3. When done with treatment, get to and stay a healthy weight

Obesity increases the risk of 11 cancers and so it makes sense that getting to a healthy weight — and staying there — can help survivors prevent other cancers. Today, approximately two thirds of U.S. adults are overweight or obese, which means many individuals start out their cancer treatment with excess body fat. Treatment and other factors lead to weight gain for many patients.

Obesity also increases the risk of developing heart disease, diabetes and it can lead to many other disorders.

The American Society of Clinical Oncology says that weight loss for obese survivors is important, and it can be achieved through lifestyle changes after cancer diagnosis.

Getting there:

  • During and after treatment work with a registered dietitian if possible to develop an eating plan that meets your nutrition needs and can help you lose weight appropriately.
  • Join a group or class at your hospital or cancer center for survivors focused on healthy lifestyle choices including diet and exercise

Join others who are also working to put our recommendations into action, one change at a time with our New American Plate Challenge. Sign up here: napchallenge.org

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    Published on May 26, 2016

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