For Cancer Survivors, Diet And Exercise May Lower Risk Of Recurrence


For the first time in ten years, the American Cancer Society (ACS) has updated their nutrition and physical activity guidelines for cancer survivors, thanks to mounting evidence that shows exercising and eating a healthy diet can be incredibly beneficial for cancer survivors.

“When you’re diagnosed with cancer, you feel like you don’t have control over anything,” says Eleanor Walker, M.D., a radiation oncologist and medical director at the Henry Ford Center for Integrative Medicine. “But your lifestyle is something you can control—and research is showing that as a cancer survivor, a healthy lifestyle can benefit your long-term health.”

The new ACS guidelines encourage cancer survivors to:

  • Maintain a healthy weight
  • Exercise daily (ideally 240 minutes each week)
  • Eat a diet filled with fresh fruits and vegetables, legumes and whole grains

Here, we break down these guidelines and share how you can incorporate them into your daily life.

Maintain A Healthy Weight

Research has found that obesity can lead to a higher risk of cancer recurrence, especially when it comes to those who have breast, endometrial and bladder cancers. It’s not known exactly why—although having excess estrogen is a risk factor for breast cancer, and peripheral fat promotes estrogen production.

“Obesity may be a risk factor for many types of cancers, it’s just that the research isn’t there yet,” says Dr. Walker. “We know more about common cancers than we do about rare cancers.”

Exercise Daily

Daily exercise has a host of healthful benefits, so it’s no surprise that it can help reduce your risk of cancer recurrence, too, especially if you have breast, colorectal or prostate cancer.

“Exercise can also be beneficial when you’re dealing with lingering side effects from cancer treatment,” says Dr. Walker. “It can help offset fatigue and can ease side effects like neuropathy. It’s also good for your heart. It helps strengthen your immune system. And of course, it can help you maintain a healthy weight.”

That said, not everyone is in a condition to exercise 240 minutes each week right after cancer treatment. It’s okay to start small.

“Pick some activities that you enjoy and find someone you can do them with,” says Molly Myers, a registered dietitian nutritionist at Henry Ford Cancer  Jackson. “Walk in the park or go for a bike ride. You can also make little changes to build your tolerance. Take the stairs instead of the elevator or park farther away from the grocery store.” 

You can also meet with an exercise physiologist. “They will develop an exercise program for you,” says Dr. Walker. “They’ll see what your baseline medical problems are, your age and your ability, and they’ll customize a plan that includes both cardio and weight training.”

Eat A Healthy Diet

A diet filled with fresh fruits and vegetables, legumes and whole grains—such as the Mediterranean diet—is associated with better outcomes in those with cancer, especially prostate cancer. On the opposite end of the spectrum, a diet high in red meat, processed meats, refined grains, fried food and refined sugar is associated with worse outcomes in survivors of colorectal, breast and prostate cancer.

“You don’t have to become completely plant-based or cut out all sugar,” says Dr. Walker. “Instead of having sweets every day, pick one day a week to have dessert. Swap red and processed meats with lean chicken or turkey. One by one, making healthy choices can add up.”   

Depending upon the type of cancer you have and your treatment side effects, it might be hard to launch into eating a normal, healthy diet. “If you are experiencing an altered sense of taste, nausea or other gastrointestinal issues, I recommend seeing an oncology dietitian for your post-treatment care. They can help tailor your diet around any side effects that you’re still experiencing,” says Myers.   

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Learn about the resources available for cancer survivors at Henry Ford Health, from nutrition counseling to exercise programs—and much more.

Eleanor Walker, M.D., is a radiation oncologist and medical director at the Henry Ford Center for Integrative Medicine. She sees patients at Henry Ford Cancer – Detroit.

Molly Myers is a registered dietitian nutritionist with Henry Ford Cancer  Jackson.

Categories: FeelWell