Surviving cancer– 9 ways to keep the odds in your favor

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Surviving cancer is quite a feat and should be commended.  The chemotherapy, radiation, surgery, a stem cell transplant or whatever else it took to get in remission is a tough road to follow.  Once all of that is done and the doctor says “You’re cancer free”, are probably some of the sweetest words you’ll ever hear.

According to the American Cancer Society, a cancer survivor is someone who has finished active treatment with the goal of prolonging survival and having the highest quality of life possible.  Because of increasing awareness, earlier detection and improved treatments, the majority of cancer survivors (64%) were diagnosed 5 or more years ago and 15% were diagnosed 20 or more years ago. 

But now what?  Now that you’re in remission, how do you keep yourself cancer free and reduce the risk of it coming back again? 

Focusing on ways to reach an optimal quality of life during cancer recovery and remission is advised since each survivor has their own unique individual needs.  If a person led an unhealthy lifestyle before their cancer diagnosis, they should rely on instilling healthier lifestyle habits going forward. 

This is where nutrition and physical activity can have a favorable impact on survival and quality of life.  When a cancer survivor makes the effort to follow a healthy lifestyle, the benefits are supportive of lessening a cancer recurrence.  Here’s how to keep the odds in your favor:

1.     Use the power of plant-based foods

You don’t have to become a vegan but when filling your plate two-thirds should be composed of vegetables, fruit, whole grains, beans, legumes, nuts and seeds while one-third can be animal sources.  The American Institute for Cancer Research recommends at least 5 servings of a variety of plant foods each day. 

Plant foods contain various vitamins, minerals in addition to phytochemicals.  Phytochemicals (phyto means plant) seem to have additional health benefits beyond what vitamins and minerals offer.  Tens of thousands have been identified and most likely there are more yet to be discovered.  Phytochemicals protect cells from harmful compounds in the environment as well as prevent cell damage and mutations.  

Cruciferous vegetables are particularly helpful – broccoli, kale, cauliflower, cabbage, Brussel sprouts – as they contain the phytochemicals isothiocyanates and glucosinolates which produce protective enzymes that may reduce cancer risk. 

2.     Shake the sugar habit

Even though sugar does not cause or feed cancer, cancer cells grow quickly and have a high demand for glucose, one of the components of sugar when it is broken down in the body.  But, all cells, cancerous or not, use glucose for energy with glucose being distributed throughout the body.

 However, consuming too much sugary foods or beverages, can lead to weight gain increasing cancer risk.  In addition, sugary foods and beverages are empty calorie foods providing calories but few nutrients.

3.     Reduce red meat and avoid processed meat

There is convincing evidence pointing to red meat (beef, pork and lamb) and processed meats (hot dogs, luncheon meat, sausage, bacon, salami), contributing to colorectal cancer.  The high fat content in red meat and nitrates found in processed meats, tend to raise the amount of carcinogens in the body. 

Red meat should be consumed no more than 18 oz. per week and processed meats should be minimized as much as possible.

4.     Ease up on alcohol

The recommendation for this is to consult with your oncologist.  Depending on the type of cancer a person had will determine what advice they will offer.  Making recommendations on alcohol can be challenging as moderate alcohol consumption can lower the risk of cardiovascular disease yet it can also increase the risk of developing cancers of the mouth, larynx, pharynx, esophagus, breast and colorectal cancer.  If combined with smoking, it is particularly harmful. 

Heavy drinkers should reduce or stop drinking, moderate drinkers most likely can continue after consulting their physician and nondrinkers should not start drinking to reduce cardiovascular disease but continue with other healthy lifestyle choices. 

Moderation is considered no more than two drinks a day for a man and no more than one drink a day for a woman.  One drink equals 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine or 1.5 ounces of hard liquor.

5.     Slow down on salt intake

Research shows that higher intakes of salt, sodium, or salty foods are linked to an increase in stomach cancer as it may cause damage to the lining of the stomach.  The average American consumes about 3,400 mg per day – much higher than the 2015 Dietary Guidelines recommendation of less than 2,300 mg a day for people aged 2 and up.  People 51 and older or those any age who are African American or who have high blood pressure, chronic kidney disease or diabetes, should reduce sodium to 1,500 mg per day.

High sodium foods include:

·      Bacon, hot dogs, sausage, packaged deli meats, ham

·      Canned soups

·      Canned vegetables

·      Cheese

·      Potato chips

·      Frozen pizza and frozen dinners

6.     Be as lean as possible within your normal body weight range

Carrying extra weight can pose a problem in keeping cancer away.  If the excess pounds are stored in the abdominal area as belly fat, it can cause metabolic changes making it more likely for cancer to grow and develop. 

Extra body fat can cause low-grade inflammation bringing about free radical production and cell damage.  Insulin resistance can raise insulin levels in the blood activating cell-signaling pathways promoting the growth of cancer cells.

7.     Dietary supplements- needed or not?

It is understandable and not uncommon for a cancer survivor to want to turn to dietary supplements to improve their odds of survival and keeping cancer away.  But there is no consistent evidence showing that dietary supplements reduce the risk of cancer recurrence as they have shown little to no benefit in prognosis after cancer.  In some cases, they can result in worse outcomes as observational studies have shown taking high levels of multivitamins may accelerate certain cancers.

8.     Exercise regularly

Exercise is important during and after cancer treatment and is usually safe and encouraged for cancer survivors.  There are multiple benefits a cancer survivor will reap: 

·      Reduces cancer-related fatigue

·      Reduces depression, anxiety, sleep disturbances and minimizes treatment-related side effects

·      Reduces body fat and increases lean muscle mass

·      Reduces elevated levels of insulin which is linked to cell proliferation, diabetes, metabolic syndrome and heart disease

·      Keeps the immune system strong

·      Is associated with increased survival and reduced recurrence, particularly in breast, prostate and colorectal cancers

9.     Stop smoking

 If you were a smoker before a cancer diagnosis, you must quit after surviving the disease.  Not doing so will only put you at a higher risk for getting cancer again.  Take control of your smoking and your health.  No matter how old you are or how long you’ve smoked, quitting will improve your odds of not getting another cancer diagnosis and living a longer and healthier life. 

Last bit of advice

Everyone who’s ever beaten cancer into remission has been given a second chance.  Don’t take it for granted.   Do whatever it takes to promote your health in addition to making every bite of food count and making exercise as routine as getting dressed in the morning.  Do this and you will enhance the odds in your favor of remaining cancer free.