Few diseases have had such a momentous impact on the American public as cancer. An estimated 1 in 2 men, along with 1 and 3 American women, will be diagnosed with cancer during their lifetime. Despite decades of research, cancer is still one of the most feared maladies in the United States, trailing only heart disease as the leading killer of Americans. As intimidating as cancer is, there are a number of things that cancer patients can do to help keep their disease in check.
Treating the Disease
In addition to its lethality, cancer is also known for its resistance to treatment. While early treatment can cure a number of cancers, it is not uncommon for cancer to make an unwelcome return after lying dormant for years. Even if chemotherapy treatments are successful, in many cases they only knock the cancer into a state of remission. In other words, the cancer remains in the body, but its symptoms subside or vanish completely.
Preventing Cancer Recurrence
While the war against cancer may never be fully won, it can’t be denied that medical science has made major strides against this disease in recent years. According to the American Cancer Institute, a combination of earlier diagnoses and improved treatment methods saved nearly 900,000 lives from 1990 to 2007. Today, an estimated 14 million Americans are cancer survivors.
Since cancer is often a complex and challenging opponent, cancer survivors are strongly urged to remain vigilant about their health. In many patients, a patient’s personal decisions related to diet, lifestyle and treatment can help prevent the recurrence of certain cancers.
When thinking about the consequences of a poor diet, images of bloated waistlines and heart attack victims are probably among the first images to jump to mind. To be sure, obesity and heart disease are among the biggest health threats facing the American public. What many people fail to realize is the link between poor dietary habits and cancer.
Researchers have long found that patients who indulge in unhealthy foods face an elevated risk of cancer diagnosis. Specifically, obesity has been linked to a higher incidence of cancer in the kidneys, esophagus, pancreas, breasts and colon. Conversely, healthy diets that minimize fattening foods may serve to reduce cancer risk.
A notable example of the relationship between food, beverages and cancer is the impact of the Mediterranean diet. As its name would indicate, this diet originated in the nations adjacent to the Mediterranean Sea, especially southern European countries like Italy, Spain and Greece. The Mediterranean diet places a strong emphasis on olive oil, fish, nuts, whole grains, fruits and vegetables, while strictly limiting the intake of red meat.
A 2013 study involving over 4500 American men found that replacing animal fats and carbohydrates with healthy vegetable fats (a tenet of the Mediterranean diet) reduced the risk of prostate cancer by 29 percent. Furthermore, Greek researchers recently concluded that Greek women who adhered most closely to their country’s traditional diet had a lower risk of contracting breast cancer. This particular study was published in 2010, and involved nearly 15,000 subjects.
As with diet, regular exercise has long been praised as a cornerstone of healthy lifestyle. Physical activity is not only beneficial to those with a clean bill of health, but can also help cancer survivors ward off future bouts with cancer. In the past, doctors would caution against patients against partaking in physical activities, warning that strenuous exercises could exhaust patients already weary from cancer treatment.
A slew of studies have lead to a major shift in thinking, with researchers finding that exercise could have the following effects on recuperating cancer survivors:
- Allows the patient to maintain or even improve their physical capabilities
- Boost the body’s sense of balance and coordination, thereby reducing the risk of damaging falls
- Prevents the body’s muscles from becoming weak
- Lowers the patient’s risk of developing heart disease
- Promotes proper blood circulation to the body’s extremities, specifically to the legs. In turn, this helps to keep the lower body free of blood clots, hardened pockets of blood that can lead to noticeable pain, swelling and tenderness
- Contributes significantly to a patient’s mental wellbeing, fending off feelings of anxiety and depression and improving self-esteem
There is no “one-size-fits-all” exercise program for cancer survivors. Depending on where cancerous cells develop, cancer’s impact on the body can vary widely from patient to patient. Likewise, different forms of cancer often require specific treatment regimens. An especially draining round of chemotherapy, for example, will leave a patient in a much weaker state than treatments designed for less-advanced forms of cancer.
A third factor that must be considered is the patient’s physical condition. A physically active person, for instance, is much more prepared to adopt a new exercise program than a committed couch potato. For these reasons, patients generally consult with their doctors as to what activities they should perform. While patients are usually given tailor-made exercise regimens to fit their overall condition, the American Cancer Society has developed four basic guidelines that can generally be applied to many cancer survivors:
- Take part in regular physical activity.
- Avoid inactivity and return to normal daily activities as soon as possible after diagnosis.
- Aim to exercise at least 150 minutes per week.
- Include strength training exercises at least 2 days per week.
Follow Up Care
This next step might seem like a no-brainer, but cancer is such a serious disease that it warrants mentioning. Even if their health appears to return to normal, cancer survivors are often urged to undergo regular checkups. During an appointment, a patient should inform their doctor about any symptoms that might be related to cancer. Such warning signs might are listed below:
- Difficulties related to bladder and bowel function
- Problems with sexual performance
- Struggles with concentration and memory
- Sudden fluctuations in weight
- An inability to get adequate amounts of sleep
Additionally, patients should be completely forthright about any medications they are currently taking, and should express any concerns they might have about their mental state. A patient’s family medical history should also be thoroughly discussed during a checkup.
In terms of pervasiveness and lives claimed, cancer is one of the most dreadful diseases ever to afflict humankind. Though living with cancer is often a lifelong battle, it is a fight that can be made easier through a combination of diet, exercise and conscientious medical care.