Cancer Survivors: Make Changes for Long-term Health Gains

By Corinne Leach, MPH, MS, PhD

If you are a cancer survivor, whether you’re currently in treatment or completed treatment long ago, you are far from alone. The estimated number of cancer survivors in the United States is currently 13.7 million and will continue to grow as our population gets older. By 2022, we expect there to be 18 million cancer survivors.

Cancer researchers are working hard to find cancers earlier, improve treatment, and decrease the negative side effects commonly associated with treatment, like fatigue, pain, lymphedema, and chemo brain. Many people come into the cancer experience with other chronic health conditions (e.g., diabetes, hypertension, arthritis), and many more develop additional conditions after their cancer treatment ends.

An important question is:  what can I do to stay as healthy as possible and feel as good as I can after cancer? The good news is that making changes in your lifestyle can make a difference in your long-term health. Here at the American Cancer Society we recently developed physical activity and healthy eating recommendations specifically for cancer survivors. But what do they mean for you? [more]

If you smoke, quit

Smoking causes many health issues for people who have not had cancer. But for cancer survivors, quitting smoking is even more important. Smoking is associated with cancer coming back (recurrence), new cancer diagnoses (lung, bladder, esophagus, larynx, mouth, throat, kidney, ovarian, cervix) as well as many other chronic conditions: COPD, emphysema, and heart disease to name a few. Have I sold you? Here are some wonderful resources to help you quit and help you stay quit.

Control your weight

Controlling your weight is even more important for cancer survivors than those without a cancer history. Someone who is overweight or obese has a higher risk of some cancers, including breast, prostate, and colon, coming back , developing additional chronic health conditions (such as heart disease and diabetes), and dying at an earlier age than someone who is at a healthy weight.

Are you obese or overweight? Use our BMI calculator to find out.

How do you help control your weight? Read on.

Get active

As someone who studies aging, I like to say that exercise is the closest thing we have to the fountain of youth. Studies have shown that physical activity is associated with lower risk of some cancers recurring (breast, colorectal, prostate, and ovarian cancers) back, lower risk of developing new cancers, and lower risk of developing additional chronic health conditions like diabetes and heart disease.

Here are some tips you can follow to increase your activity level and keep active long term:

  • Do something you enjoy doing: I don’t like admitting this, but I don’t like to run. When I have attempted to develop a running regimen, I have a hard time sticking to it because I don’t find it enjoyable. Instead, I found a love of playing tennis and continue to play a couple times a week to this day. The important thing is to try different ways of being active and see what speaks to you.
  • Just show up: Just by showing up to the gym, to an exercise class, to the pool, etc. you have made a big step in your commitment to your health. If you are not up for a full workout that day, that’s okay. You will keep your commitment to yourself to do something active that day by just getting off the couch.
  • You don’t have to run a marathon; just move: If you are new to exercise or have taken a break from it, it will take time to build up to the recommended level. That is okay. In the meantime, talk to your doctor about an exercise program and just get moving.

Identifying a small, achievable goal is key. If you go beyond that goal on certain days, GREAT. And you can always increase your goal slowly. However, setting a goal too high, especially at first, can make it very difficult to meet every single day (especially given how busy we all get).

Even small increases in your activity level can make large differences in your physical and emotional health and can decrease your risk for developing chronic conditions. Some simple things you can do:

  • Go for a walk with a friend instead of catching up with them on the phone or over pizza
  • Park farther away at the grocery store so you have to walk a little more on each trip
  • Build small exercises into your daily routine, like toe raises or squats each time you brush your teeth stretch in the shower or during your favorite TV show

The important message is to start small and build on more activity every couple of weeks and you will reach the physical activity recommendations in no time! As an added bonus, you will feel great about yourself for achieving your goal of being a more active person.

  • Find a healthy “partner in crime”: By recruiting a healthy living partner in crime, you can help to motivate each other and keep each other accountable. Having a walking buddy and a tennis buddy really helps me stick to my exercise routine.

Eat well

With so many different messages out there about what to eat and what not to eat, I often get confused –and I work in this field! A few tips that I use are:

1) Take in plenty of

a. Vegetables and fruits

b. Low-fat proteins such as chicken, fish, egg whites, and tofu

c. Whole grain foods like  whole wheat, oatmeal or whole oats, whole-grain cornmeal, whole rye, brown rice, and even popcorn without added salt or butter

d. Water: keeps you hydrated and makes you feel more full

2) Take in less

a. Sugar-sweetened beverages: such as sodas, flavored water high in sugar, juices high in sugar). Many studies have shown that these types of beverages increase weight and increase    your risk for developing different health conditions. Once in a while a small soda can be a tasty treat. The key is to enjoy these types of beverages in moderation.

b. Red meat:  I LOVE a ribeye once in a while, but high amounts of red meat (such as pork, hamburgers, and steak) can increase your risk for many types of cancer (colon, and possibly others including prostate and stomach), weight gain, and other health conditions. Enjoy it sparingly.   

c. Processed meats: All the studies say the same thing. Processed meats, like hot dogs, bacon, and deli turkey, ham, and salami, significantly raise your risk of several cancers, even in small amounts, over time. Have these only occasionally.

For more detailed information about your diet and physical activity during and after cancer treatment, see Lifestyle Changes that Make a Difference.

These tips for living healthier can help you achieve your own health goals in the future and can help you live long, healthy, cancer-free lives!

Dr. Leach is director of cancer and aging research for the American Cancer Society.

3 thoughts on “Cancer Survivors: Make Changes for Long-term Health Gains

  1. Wow. The number of current cancer survivors and the projected number in 2022 is staggering! This article underscores the growing epidemic of cancer despite the resources devoted to fighting this disease. General health and wellness is not a trivial matter in the prevention of cancer and disease in general. That said, other factors must be associated with the fact that more people are getting, living and dying of cancer each year. If environmental components, such as those derived from foods, are thought to play are role in cancer development, perhaps the best advice this article offers is to take in less! Thank you for your insights here.

  2. It is good news that making these small changes in lifestyle can make a big difference in long-term health. As an estate planning attorney I encounter many clients that have been given a second chance. Good article about preventive measures that can help promote a longer life.

  3. what do you recommend 1) eat some amount of low fat animal protein. 2) eat plant based protein only? which is better assuming it's easy to achieve in either case.

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