You've been traveling a long and turbulent path, and you've finally reached the best destination. After all the fear and uncertainty, pain and sickness, your doctor gave you the news you've been hoping for—you're cancer-free!
While you may be doing backflips in your mind, your body has been through a major ordeal and there's always a chance your cancer could return. Thankfully, research indicates that diet and exercise are key to preventing cancer regrowth.
Rebuilding your body takes time
When my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, she struggled with her weight and energy levels throughout treatment. Following her final chemotherapy session, she spent much of her time resting and waiting for her energy to return. She was surprised to find that it didn't. She just couldn't get back to feeling like herself.
Unfortunately, many patients think once they get the all-clear, they can just start running marathons or go right back to their precancer lives. Sadly, this is often unlikely, as many patients face unexpected health changes from treatments, such as anemia, a blunted immune system, low BMI and chronic/debilitating fatigue
The most impactful side effects of cancer treatments are chronic, such as permanent muscle weakness, and many patients find themselves battling anxiety and depression related to their fear of cancer recurrence. Exercise can help both, but it's still imperative to start slow and do only what your body can handle.
Lynn Panton, Ph.D., an exercise physiologist and professor at Florida State University, recommends anyone struggling with chronic symptoms, such as fatigue and pain, should try low-impact exercises, such as swimming, water aerobics, yoga and strength training. Start with very light weights and slowly progress as your tolerance and stamina increase.
The key to this balance is to avoid overexertion. If you feel tired or are in pain, take it easy. Some days, you may feel sick: The side effects of chemotherapy can linger for weeks after your final treatment.
The American Cancer Society recommends 150 minutes of physical activity each week, which works out to about 20 minutes a day or 30 minutes five times a week. This activity should be low-impact. Try taking a quick walk around your neighborhood or up and down a few aisles at the grocery store. Your first goal should be to regain your confidence and independence, so your daily exercise could be your chores or the self-care you have been unable to manage during treatment.
One size doesn't fit all
As researchers continue to study cancer and its effects, it's clear the same risk factors for cancer development are also attributed to cancer regrowth.
"In women, an estimated 22 percent of all cancers combined are thought to be due to a combination of poor diet, inactive lifestyle, excess body fatness and alcohol," said Marjorie McCullough, SCD, R.D., senior scientific director of epidemiology research for the American Cancer Society. "It is important to eat foods that help to maintain a healthy body weight, and to consume a mostly plant-based diet rich in whole grains, vegetables and fruit, low in red and processed meats, and low in sugar and highly processed foods."
Monika Bettney, a specialist gastroenterologist and women's health dietitian, also emphasized that while everyone's dietary needs are different, aiming for a more plant-based diet is essential, as processed foods, red meat and dairy products are known to cause inflammation in patients with chronic conditions such as gastrointestinal issues and cancer.
A complete dietary overhaul may seem daunting, but McCullough wants every cancer patient and survivor to remember that there's no perfect or one-size-fits-all approach.
"It depends on each cancer patient's specific situation," McCullough said. "If they are experiencing issues such as poor appetite, weight gain or loss, or are recovering from surgery that impacts what they can eat, they will have unique needs."
Seek help from a dietitian
To make dietary changes simple, McCullough recommends anyone with and without cancer should ask their oncologist to refer them to a registered dietitian who specializes in helping cancer patients. If possible, you should do this before, during and after treatment, as each stage creates its own unique set of dietary and nutritional needs, and each patient will have their own struggles to overcome.
The American Institute for Cancer Research recommends two-thirds of your plate should be filled with fruits and vegetables, while the remaining one-third should be lean or plant-based protein. The specifics of this, and even the plan itself, are still subject to an individual's needs. Ultimately, a personalized approach to your diet and exercise is essential for recovering from cancer treatment and preventing cancer recurrence. When we seek answers, this can be frustrating because we want to hear something simple, like, follow plan X and you'll never have to worry about cancer again.
However, this just isn't the case. Every patient receives an individualized prognosis that depends on the type, location and stage of cancer, and your recovery plan should be just as individualized. Thankfully, there is a lot of research you can investigate and there are all kinds of dietitians who specialize in helping cancer patients and survivors rebuild their lives following cancer treatments. It will take work, but you can build a lifestyle to prevent cancer regrowth.