Cancer Survivors: 4 Lifestyle Factors to Improve Your Health

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There are more than 15.5 million cancer survivors in the United States, and the number is estimated to reach more than 20 million in the next decade. Many are long-term survivors who were initially diagnosed more than five years ago.

These statistics show an encouraging trend, but with increased survival comes a new set of challenges for many former patients. Overall, cancer survivors tend to have poorer health outcomes than people who have never had cancer. For instance, among cancer survivors:

  • The leading cause of death for survivors of breast, endometrial and colorectal cancers is coronary artery disease.
  • Certain types of radiotherapy and chemotherapy can lead to late or lasting side effects, including heart attack and other heart problems, which may occur days, months, or years following cancer treatment
  • There is an increased risk of developing cancer for a second time

Cancer survivors may be able to influence their health significantly, however, by adhering to a healthy lifestyle. In a review published in the Journal of Personalized Medicine, researchers recommended oncologists encourage cancer survivors to adopt such changes:

Realizing that survivors are highly motivated to improve their overall health after a diagnosis of cancer, healthy lifestyle recommendations from oncology providers can serve as a strong tool to motivate survivors to adopt health behavior changes.”

Specifically, the following lifestyle factors may affect your health after surviving cancer.

1. Healthy Diet

Eating a diet high in vegetables, fruits and whole grains, and low in red and processed meats is recommended. Avoiding sugary drinks is also advised, and there is some evidence that increased intake of healthy fats is protective.

2. Healthy Body Weight

Avoiding overweight and obesity is important for cancer survivors. According to the review, losing even 5 percent to 10 percent of excess weight may have significant health and cardiovascular benefits. The review further noted:

“ … the goal for all survivors should be to achieve and maintain a healthy body weight (BMI 18.5–25 kg/m2) in order to maximize overall health outcomes … In most survivors, needed intentional weight loss efforts can be deferred until cancer therapy is complete.”

3. Physical Activity

Regular physical activity may reduce the risk of premature death from cancer and all causes. It’s also associated with improvements in treatment-related side effects and quality of life, including emotional well-being, self-esteem, sexuality, sleep, fatigue, pain, anxiety and more.

Both aerobic and resistance training are recommended, although you should check with your oncologist before starting a new exercise program. According to the review:

“Guideline recommendations include participating in at least 150 min of moderate intensity or 75 min of vigorous intensity activity each week, preferably spread throughout the week.

 Additionally, two or three weekly resistance or strength training sessions involving major muscle groups should be encouraged. Stretching of major muscle groups should be performed on the days of other exercise.”

 4. Smoking Cessation

Smokers who quit smoking after cancer diagnosis have improved rates of survival compared to those who continue smoking. All tobacco products should be avoided, including cigarettes and chewing tobacco.

If you’re a cancer survivor, you know that motivation to lead a healthy lifestyle may peak following treatment. This is the perfect time to harness that motivation and make the changes you need to live the healthiest lifestyle possibl


Journal of Personalized Medicine 2015 Sep; 5(3): 243–263

Journal of Clinical Oncology 2012 Oct 20;30(30):3697-704

CA June 2, 2016