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Making the Most of Your Cancer Care

by Lorenzo Cohen, PhD, and Richard Lee, MD

Wellness image

Eat at least five servings of fruits and vegetables daily.

While going through treatment, people with cancer often ask, “What can I do to help?” The answer is to adopt a healthy lifestyle. A healthy lifestyle might help you feel stronger and fitter. It also may help support the cancer treatments so that they work better. We encourage all people with cancer to do all they can to strengthen their body’s natural defenses to improve health, well-being, and clinical outcomes.

Eat Well
Diet plays an important role during and after cancer treatment. A healthy diet can help manage treatment side effects, improve outcomes, and lower cancer risk.

♦ Choose to eat mostly plants
Eat at least five servings of fruits and vegetables daily. Choose a variety of colors and cooking methods. Eat fiber-rich foods, such as beans, peas, lentils, nuts, and seeds. Whole fruits and vegetables have more fiber and less sugar than juices or canned foods. Limit red meat, and limit meat portions to less than four ounces per meal (size of a deck of cards). Avoid high-fat and highly processed meats, such as hot dogs, bologna, bacon, and salami.

♦ Choose healthy fats that help the body fight disease
Increase omega-3 and monounsaturated fats in your diet. Good sources are olive and canola oils, olives, nuts, avocado, and cold-water fish, such as salmon, sardines, trout, and tuna. Limit saturated fats and large amounts of omega-6 fatty acids. These are found in fatty meats, high-fat dairy products (such as whole milk, cheese, and butter), and fried foods. Avoid trans fats typically found in packaged snack foods, fried foods, and shortening. Do not buy foods with “hydrogenated” or “partially hydrogenated” listed on the food label.

Exercise helps us maintain weight, lower disease risk, fight fatigue, and improve overall health.

Author of Article photo

Dr. Lorenzo Cohen

♦ Change unhealthy eating habits
Learn to recognize when you feel hungry and when you feel full. Eat fewer high-calorie, low-nutrient foods like sodas, fruit-flavored drinks, candy, and processed foods. If you want something sweet, eat a small portion of a high-quality homemade dessert or a small piece of dark chocolate. Limit alcohol to no more than two drinks per day for men and one drink per day for women.

Exercise Often
Physical activity includes all movement, and it is important for good health. Exercise helps us maintain weight, lower disease risk, fight fatigue, and improve overall health. While exercise may be tough at first, it will get easier over time.

Author of Article photo

Dr. Richard Lee

Aim for 30 to 60 minutes of moderate to hard physical activity every day. Judge the level of an activity by how easy it is to talk. While doing moderate activity, you should be able to talk, but not sing. With harder activities, you should only be able to talk in short phrases. Always talk with your doctor before starting an exercise program.

It is important to choose activities that fit your lifestyle and will motivate you. A few examples include walking or jogging, swimming, dancing, gardening or housework, weight lifting, and golf (without a cart).

Be as lean as possible within the range of your normal body weight. A healthy diet and physical activity are the keys to weight loss for people who are overweight or obese.

Manage Stress
Stress occurs when a demand is placed upon your body and mind that exceeds your ability to cope. A demand can range from actual physical danger, to the excitement of buying a home, to a family disagreement. Long-term stress may increase cancer risk, promote tumor growth, and interfere with treatment.

It is healthy to practice stress management for at least 10 minutes every day. This is good for your body and mind. Here are a few tips to manage stress:

  • Use relaxation techniques, such as guided imagery, meditation, and yoga.
  • Exercise often.
  • Add humor and laughter to your life.
  • Have quiet time (prayer, reading, listening to music).
  • Find a hobby.
  • Meet with a counselor to discuss coping skills for managing stress.

Accept Help and Support from Others
Having a network of friends, family, neighbors, and others in your life to help and comfort you is important for good health. During your cancer treatment, you might feel afraid, alone, or confused. Having people around who care about you can help you feel better. Several studies have found that cancer survivors with the most social support had better quality of life and lived longer than those with the least amount of social support.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Dr. Lorenzo Cohen is professor and director of the Integrative Medicine Program at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, TX. Dr. Richard Lee is an assistant professor and the medical director of the Integrative Medicine Program at MD Anderson.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, July/August 2011.