Cancer’s hard. No two ways about it. Diagnosis and treatment can be frightening and draining, and even after you’ve made it past those hurdles, you have to learn how to make your way through life as a cancer survivor. With modern medicine, though, millions of survivors are not only living longer, but they’re also learning to live better. And one of the best paths to doing that is to take steps to take control your health.
These eight “ways” can be your guide that helps lay the foundation for the many health-filled years that most survivors enjoy.
It’s almost never too early to start. Whether you’ve just been diagnosed, are going through treatment or are post-treatment, these eight behaviors can help boost your health.
Your doctor can help guide you, but the only limitation, really, is when you want to start. Begin with one or two; once you’ve got those down, move on to the others.
1. Don’t Smoke
You’ve heard it before, of course. But, if you smoke, the single best thing you can do as a survivor is stop.
It will lower your risk of developing a second cancer as well as heart disease and stroke. Yes, it’s hard. But it’s far from impossible.
- Keep trying! It often takes six or seven tries before you quit for good.
- Talk to a health care provider. It can double your chances of success.
- Call 1-800-QUITNOW or visit smokefree.gov for extra help.
- Join a quit-smoking program. Your workplace or health plan may offer one.
2. Avoid Secondhand Smoke
If you don’t smoke – and even if you do – stay away from secondhand smoke. It’s not as bad as smoking yourself, but spending time in smoky places can further raise the risk of cancer as well as heart disease.
- Avoid smoky bars and restaurants.
- Try to work in a nonsmoking workplace.
- Make your house nonsmoking and don’t give in, not to spouses, kids or friends.
3. Exercise Regularly
It’s tough for a lot of people to fit exercise in to their schedules. For survivors whose regular routines have been so interrupted and who may have just gone through treatment, it can be even tougher. But the benefits of regular activity make it well worth the effort to fit it in, even for those in the middle of treatment. It not only boosts health but also improves mood and helps counter cancer-related fatigue. Regular exercise may lower the risk of recurrence and help cut the risk of other chronic diseases.
Try to get at least 30 minutes of aerobic activity (like brisk walking) every day. More is even better. It’s also important to fit in strength training. Build up to 2 or more times per week.
- Choose activities you enjoy. Many things count as exercise, like walking, gardening and dancing.
- Make exercise a habit by setting aside the same time for it each day – try going to the gym each day at lunchtime or taking a walk regularly after dinner.
- Stay motivated by exercising with someone.
4. Maintain a Healthy Weight
With the stress, treatment side effects and changes to life’s routine that a cancer diagnosis can bring, it can be hard for survivors to keep weight in check. Still, maintaining a healthy weight — or at a minimum, not gaining weight — is an important goal that all survivors should shoot for. Next to not smoking, it’s the single most important thing you can do to improve your health and quality of life.
- Limit time in front of the TV and computer.
- Integrate physical activity and movement into your life.
- Eat a diet rich in fruits, vegetables and whole grains.
- Choose smaller portions and eat more slowly.
5. Eat a Healthy Diet
As a survivor, it can be tough to know how you should eat. Books and articles and websites spout “wonder” diets, but the reality is that healthy eating is the same for cancer survivors as it is for everyone else. A healthy diet can help keep weight in check, give your body the nutrients it needs and the energy you need to make it through a busy day.
You should focus on fruits, vegetables and whole grains and keep red meat to a minimum. It’s also important to cut back on bad fats (saturated and trans fat) and choose healthy fats (polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats) more often.
Taking a 100 percent DV multivitamin with folate every day is a great nutrition insurance policy.
- Make fruits and vegetables a part of every meal.
- Put fruit on your cereal. Eat vegetables as a snack.
- Choose chicken, fish or beans instead of red meat.
- Choose whole-grain cereal, brown rice and whole-wheat bread over their more refined counterparts.
- Choose dishes made with olive or canola oil, which are high in healthy fats.
- Cut back on fast food and store-bought snacks (like cookies), which are high in bad fats.
- Follow food safety steps to avoid food poisoning.
6. Drink Alcohol in Moderation, If at All
Alcohol can be a complicated issue, especially for survivors. Moderate consumption can be heart healthy – a big benefit. But at the same time, it can increase the risk of a later cancer. On top of this, alcohol can become for some an unhealthy way to deal with the physical and emotional stress of cancer.
If you don’t drink, don’t feel the need to start. If you do, keep it to moderate levels (one drink a day for women, one to two drinks a day for men). Those who drink more should cut back.
- Choose nonalcoholic beverages at meals and parties.
- Avoid occasions centered around alcohol.
- Talk to a health care professional if you feel you have a problem with alcohol.
7. Stay Connected With Friends, Family, and Other Surviviors
There is real power in staying connected with friends, family and other cancer survivors. Keeping up and building on a social network can significantly improve quality of life – and possibly even prognosis – in cancer survivors. Even in those with great support from family and friends, cancer can seem isolating, so it can take some effort to keep up these relationships.
- Schedule a time each week to get to together with friends or family.
- Go regularly to survivors’ support groups, which can be great places to share feelings and concerns with those who’ve been through similar things.
- Use technology to your advantage. Social media, real-time video, and good old-fashioned telephones and email are great ways to connect with family, friends, and other survivors.
8. Get Screening Tests and Go to Your Regular Check-Ups
As a survivor, there’s nothing more important than going to your regular post-treatment check-ups with your primary care doctor and oncology team. These visits are not only key to your health as a survivor but also great places to share any concerns or questions you have about your health. Become a team with your doctors to manage your health needs. In addition to any follow up tests specific to your cancer, it’s also important to keep getting recommended screening tests for other cancers and for heart disease, diabetes, and osteoporosis risk factors.
Talk to your doctor about tests that screen for:
- Breast cancer
- Colon cancer
- Cervical cancer
- Lung cancer (if history of smoking)
- Hepatitis C (if born 1945-65)
- High blood sugar
- High blood pressure
- Unhealthy blood cholesterol