Good lifestyle choices are always important. For those with a cancer diagnosis, they can be even more so.

It is critical to maintain the key activities that encourage good health throughout cancer treatment and after. Good habits such as physical activity and a healthy diet affect not only the outcome of treatment but the quality of life during and after treatment.

The impact of cancer and treatment is not to be taken lightly, affecting relationships, energy and activity level. Unfortunately, many patients complete cancer treatment with some functional deficits and de-conditioning, fatigue, joint pain and tightness, emotional strain, muscular pain and weakness, mobility limitations, lymphedema, and chemo brain. However, patients who maintain a healthy lifestyle during their cancer journey have a better chance of leading a long and healthy life after treatment is over.

Several studies reveal that a combination of healthy lifestyle behaviors is associated with improved survival rates. The American Society of Clinical Oncology study showed that breast cancer survivors may increase their years of survival after diagnosis by simply being physically active and eating a healthy diet. Being physically active was the equivalent of walking 30 minutes 6 days per week. The healthy diet constitutes consuming at least five servings of fruit/vegetables daily. Women who followed this regimen reduced the probability of death by 50% in the 10-year follow-up period of this study. It should be noted that women who had hormone receptor-positive cancers saw a greater impact than more than women who didn’t.

The European Healthy Aging study of 70- 90 year olds revealed four specific lifestyle choices that reduced cancer deaths by 60 percent and resulted in a 60 percent reduction in all causes of mortality. The factors were: 1) being non-smokers, 2) eating the Mediterranean diet, 3) being physically active and 4) consuming alcohol in moderation. The Nurses’ Health Study, which includes more than 230,000 participants, revealed that 82% of coronary events could be linked to similar lifestyle behaviors. They specifically studied smoking status, BMI, dietary patterns, and alcohol usage. Adherence to these lifestyle choices make a very important and prominent difference in cancer survival and overall mortality rate.

Further research shows how both moderate and high-intensity exercise programs for breast cancer patients helped stave off declines in function and fitness during treatment. The Journal of Hematology and Oncology also said exercise improved treatment tolerance. Hanna van Waart, MD, of the Netherlands Cancer Institute in Amsterdam reported less nausea and vomiting, less pain, less decline in cardiorespiratory fitness, better cognitive functioning, less constipation, lower levels of reduced motivation and activity levels when patients exercised during treatment. Both exercising groups returned to work prior to the usual care patients. At six months, 80 percent of both exercise groups were back to work compared to 61 percent of the usual care patients.

All these findings point to the fact that exercise, both high and moderate-intensity exercise programs, are safe and effective during adjuvant chemotherapy for breast cancer and for follow-up care. Several organizations, including the American Cancer Society recommend:

  • Perform 150 minutes per week of aerobic activity. This can be broken up into 10 minute bouts or longer.
  • If 150 minutes is not possible, patients should aim to be physically active as long as possible.
  • Perform muscle strengthening activity at least 2 times per week.
  • Limit consumption of refined carbohydrate foods.
  • Do not consume sugar sweetened beverages.