Lifestyle Matters

Cancer responds to healthy lifestyle behaviors

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

Chronic diseases despise a healthy, oxygen rich, low-inflammation environment. The diseases that hang on and around have trouble getting a foothold in healthy bodies.

Even cancer tends to ignore those who insist on eating more whole than processed foods, staying active and attaining and maintaining their ideal weight.

Because all this healthy stuff helps to prevent, treat and sometimes even reverse chronic diseases, including cancer.

The wealth of health behaviors

It's well-established that being overweight, physically inactive and eating certain types of food, such as red and processed meats, increase the odds of developing certain cancers, including the most common - breast, colorectal and prostate.

There's now mounting evidence that a healthy lifestyle can ease cancer treatment, speed recovery and keep the big C from returning or reappearing in new forms down the road. 

Experts from around the country have collaborated and compiled all the latest findings regarding healthy behaviors into the American Cancer Society Nutrition and Physical Activity Guidelines for Cancer Survivors. 

The report looks at the health impact of lifestyle choices and includes four sections:

  • What you eat and how you move
  • Getting control of your weight - food choices, alcohol intake, food safety
  • How to deal with specific concerns according to the location of the cancer 
  • Answers for your frequently asked questions

This is the latest version of a report that was first written in 2001 and updated in 2006. The panel of experts evaluated the best science and best clinical practices to develop these recommendations.

From prevention to living longer

DailyRx spoke to Otis Brawley, MD, chief medical officer and executive vice president of the American Cancer Society. He told us, "Nutrition and physical activity and maintaining as close to possible a normal body weight - these three things are incredibly important.

"They are important in cancer causation, and they are important in terms of keeping cancer from coming back after treatment. It reduces risk of relapse, and it reduces the risk of new cancers," Dr. Brawley said.

DailyRx and 1-800-Oncologist will be exploring these guidelines in a series of Feature articles over the next several weeks. We start with eating and moving well.

Guidelines for healthy living

So these guidelines are designed for anyone who has ever been diagnosed with cancer - wherever you are in the process of dealing with the monster - newly diagnosed, being treated, recovering from treatment or years out from the ride. 

Here are the best things for cancer champions to do throughout their adventures in living to minimize progression of the disease, recurrence and stave off the inevitable for us all:

  • Eat a diet that's tall on plant foods and short on refined grains (white flour, white rice, milled grains).
  • Focus on fish and chicken and not so much on red and processed meats.
  • Go for the low-fat dairy and shy away from fried foods.
  • Slather yourself in freshness - with gobs of green and a rainbow of colors in fruits vegetables.

Dr. Brawley simplifies the message when he tells us, "A 'good diet' is one where there's attention to calories."

He continues, "I have no evidence that a vegan diet is better than a diet that includes reasonable portions of meat. Having some meat in the diet is okay with us.

"The big issue with bad diets really does appear to be high caloric intake. The data does show that we should have much more concern when the diet is high in calories."

Get moving

Stand up, get and keep moving is another key message.

Staying active with exercise or simple everyday things such as walking - helps just about everything - from improving how your body functions during treatment to mental outlook and possibly even speeding up chemo completion.

Colleen Doyle, MS, RD, is the director of Nutition and Physical Activity for the American Cancer Society. She said in a video clip announcing the Guidelines, "We've known for years that being physically active increases quality of life, decreases stress, really gives you a sense of empowerment. But now the research shows that with breast cancer, colorectal cancer and prostate cancer and probably ovarian cancer too - being physically active reduces the risks of recurrence of those cancers," Doyle explained.

Asking for help

Designing a healthy diet isn't as easy as it sounds, particularly when someone is living with cancer. So anyone who has been diagnosed with cancer should feel free to ask their healthcare provider for a referral to a registered dietician (RD), preferably someone who understands the diet-related challenges of cancer.

The same holds true for finding an exercise/fitness expert or physical therapist who can assist in helping design a movement plan that addresses individual needs, some of which are controlled by the disease.

Mounting evidence

"In 1999, we started to see some evidence that lifestyle matters in terms of cancer survivorship. And that evidence has just continued to grow," Doyle said.

"Living a physically active lifestyle and eating a healthy diet should absolutely be top of mind for anyone who’s been diagnosed with cancer.“ 

By the way

Here at dailyRx and 1-800-Oncologist, you'll never see the term "cancer survivor." Ever. The label just doesn't work for this writer, who could use it herself.

No, you will hear terms like cancer victor, champion, dancer, someone who's beaten cancer - but never just survivor.

People who have been diagnosed with, treated for and are living beyond cancer are the strong ones, the courageous folks, the "I've been to hell and back and am here to tell you about it" people.

They're not quitters - they are the cancer dancers - still swinging, sashaying and waltzing through life.

Stay tuned

You'll find additional - more specific answers on healthy lifestyle choices - in upcoming Features. Stay tuned for more.

Review Date: 
May 1, 2012