If you are a cancer survivor and you want to minimize your risk of that cancer recurring, or another cancer developing, you should eat a healthy diet, do plenty of exercise, and maintain a healthy body weight, says the American Cancer Society in its new guidelines. Colleen Doyle, MS, RD, Director of Nutrition and Physical Activity at the American Cancer Society, and co-author of the guidelines, says most of the recommendations come down to common sense and have been around for many years.

Doyle explained that while working for the American Cancer society, many people have come up to her with questions regarding their present, past and future health. The three most common questions have been:

  • “How can I minimize the chances of my cancer recurring?”
  • “How can I minimize my chances of developing some other cancer?”
  • “What can I do to help members of my family minimize their chances of developing cancer”

Doyle said that questions 2 and 3 were always easy to deal with. Scientists, doctors and lay people have known for decades that for non-smoking individuals, the best way to minimize cancer risk is to try to maintain a healthy body weight, do exercise (be physically active), follow a healthy diet rich in fruits, vegetables and whole grains, and either consume alcohol in moderation or not at all.

The majority of peer-reviewed published studies have shown that for the majority on non-smoking people, those who follow these recommendations properly have a considerably lower risk of dying early from cancer, heart disease, and most other causes.

Doyle says that advising cancer survivors on how to reduce their risk of developing the cancer again is not so clear. However, it is getting easier as new studies report their findings.

Several studies over the last few years indicate that being physically active, eating healthily and maintaining a healthy body weight also reduce a cancer survivor’s risk of recurrence. These lifestyle factors may also raise the chances of disease-free survival after being diagnosed with cancer.

The more overweight a cancer survivor is, the higher is his/her risk of recurrence. Survivors of breast, colorectal, and prostate cancer have lower survival rates the more overweight they are. Doyle says that for these three cancers, and several others, being overweight is a risk factor. The proportion of patients who are overweight on the day of their cancer diagnosis is much higher than in the rest of the population.

For those diagnosed with cancer, as well as patients who survive the disease, maintaining a healthy body weight is crucial.

You can maintain a healthy weight by:

  • Controlling your calorie intake. This means being careful with high-calorie foods
  • Consuming fewer high-sugar or high-fat drinks
  • Consuming plenty of fruit, vegetables, whole grains and fiber
  • Making sure you are physically active

Several studies and peer-reviewed articles in academic journals have demonstrated that regular physical activity has a considerable impact on the cancer survivors’ quality of life.

More recently, studies have shown that being physically active after being diagnosed with cancer lowers the risk of the disease coming back when the cancer has gone. Studies on patients with ovarian, prostate, colon and breast cancer have convincingly proven this.

Doyle quotes a recent study on breast cancer survivors which showed that those who exercised regularly after diagnosis:

  • Had a 34% lower risk of dying from the disease
  • A 41% lower risk of dying prematurely form any disease or condition
  • A 24% lower risk of the breast cancer coming back

Another study demonstrated that colon cancer survivors who regularly exercise have a significantly lower risk of dying from the disease, and are 50% less likely to experience recurrence of colorectal cancer.

Fruit and Vegetable Market
Plenty of fruit, vegetables (and wholegrains) are vital for cancer survivors

Some studies, mainly focusing on breast cancer, and more recently prostate and colorectal cancers, have shown that people who eat lots of fruit and veggies, plus whole grains, have better survival rates after diagnosis.

Doyle wrote:

“Similar to what we’ve seen for cancer prevention, it looks like it’s the overall dietary pattern that is important for cancer survivorship -it’s not one food, or even one food group, that makes the difference. It’s likely the combination of many different nutrients coming from many different foods –working together — that offers the best protection.”

According to the studies, cancer survivors should make sure that their diet is:

  • High in whole grains, vegetables and fruit
  • Has a higher proportion of fish and poultry than red or processed meats, when considering animal-sourced proteins
  • Dairy fat choices should be low-fat ones, rather than high-fat
  • Butter and trans fats should be replaced by nuts and olive oil

Written by Christian Nordqvist