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Adopting a Healthy Lifestyle after Cancer

by Deborah K. Mayer, PhD, RN, AOCN, FAAN

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If you are not fitting in at least 150 minutes of physical activity a week, get moving.

I have been an oncology nurse for over 30 years but only joined the “club no one wants to be a member of” in 2007. So I have a view from both sides of being care provider and recipient. Much of my career has focused on people newly diagnosed with cancer who are facing treatment. I soon began to realize that was just the beginning of life as a cancer survivor.

The Institute of Medicine’s seminal 2005 report From Cancer Patient to Cancer Survivor: Lost in Transition helped articulate what many of us were observing, namely that we did a poor job of helping people integrate their cancer experience, transition into their life after cancer, and answer the question “now what?” Moreover, many survivorship programs and activities appear to be targeted to survivors who no longer have signs of their cancer. The definition of a cancer survivor is anyone living with a history of cancer – from the moment of diagnosis through the remainder of life. That applies to people living with active disease.

It can take about a year for cancer survivors to absorb and integrate the diagnosis and initial treatment into who they are and what they do. For some, it is sooner; for others, it takes more time. But few escape the impact of a cancer diagnosis.

While it may be easier said than done, adopting these healthy behaviors may make a big difference in your health.

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Dr. Deborah Mayer

After my own diagnosis, I asked myself, Am I living the life I want to be leading? Although the answer was mostly yes, some areas needed attention. For starters, I had to get rid of sources of stress in my life. This meant moving from Boston, where I had a daily twohour commute, to North Carolina, where my commute lasts only 10 minutes. I also started paying more attention to how physically active I was and to what I was eating and drinking. While I believed I was living a fairly healthy lifestyle, there was room for improvement.

My research explores the health behaviors of cancer survivors. A number of current studies are geared toward increasing the physical activity of survivors and promoting a diet rich in fruits and vegetables. While it may be easier said than done, adopting these healthy behaviors may make a big difference in your health, including your risk of cancer recurrence, heart disease, and diabetes.

So how do you adopt a healthy lifestyle? First, if you smoke – quit. Numerous resources, such as SmokeFree.gov, are available to help you (and your family) stop smoking.

If you are not fitting in at least 150 minutes of physical activity a week, get moving. To get started, contact your local YMCA; many offer fitness programs specifically tailored to cancer survivors. If you don’t have a program near you, start walking. Brisk walking has been shown to be a good form of exercise for cancer survivors. Find a friend to walk with you. You’re more likely to stick with a fitness program when you have an exercise partner.

Watch what you’re eating and make some changes, if needed. Work with your doctor or a dietitian to develop a healthy eating plan that works for you.

Pay attention to your overall health. Visit your dentist twice a year for regular cleanings. See your primary care provider for an annual check-up and to get your seasonal flu shot. Take care of any other conditions you may have in addition to your cancer.

Finally, find meaningful things to add joy to your life. After all, it’s important to make the life that is saved by cancer treatment worth living.

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Dr. Deborah Mayer is an associate professor in the School of Nursing at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is also the editor for the Oncology Nursing Society’s Clinical Journal of Oncology Nursing.

Talk with your doctor about ways you can lead a healthier lifestyle and for more information on local resources.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, November/December 2011.