A Prescription for Healthy Living: How Diet and Exercise Can Help Cancer Patients

A patient’s treatment plan for fighting cancer doesn’t stop at the hospital door. Adopting a healthy lifestyle, in terms of diet and exercise, is especially important for cancer patients in reducing stress, minimizing side effects, and boosting energy levels to power through treatment and recovery.

More than 93 million American adults could be counted as obese in 2016, according to the most recently available data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  “Obesity not only increases the risks of developing cancer; it also increases the risks of complications in diagnosed patients,” says Jennifer Ligibel, MD, director of Dana-Farber’s Leonard P. Zakim Center for Integrative Therapies and Healthy Living.

Plus, in some common cancers, such as breast cancer and prostate cancer, many patients now tend to gain—rather than lose—weight during treatment.

“That contradicts a common misperception that people have had for many years,” Ligibel continues. “Some patients think, ‘I have cancer. I have to make sure I don’t lose weight,’ so they bulk up. But we have much better medications to help patients avoid nausea and weight loss during treatment now than we did even a few years ago.

“Many people become less active during their cancer treatment, and even afterward,” says Ligibel. “Some cancer treatments can also contribute to weight gain.”

Jennifer Ligibel, MD.

How Patients Can Evaluate and Manage Their Diet

Ligibel recommends following the American Cancer Society’s guidelines on nutrition and weight management. They emphasize a plant-based diet with most nutrients coming from fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean meats and fish.

“When you look across a population of people who have healthy behaviors—they eat a plant-based diet, their weight is in the normal range—we know that those people are less likely to get cancer in the first place,” Ligibel says. “In some cases, they are also less likely to have it comes back after it develops.”Blueberries.

Why Exercise is Important

Exercise is crucial in helping patients lose and manage weight and also provides other critical health benefits.

“If you exercise during your cancer treatment, and afterward, that can help prevent some of the long-term side effects that patients can develop from cancer treatment,” Ligibel says. “Exercise has been shown to reduce side effects like fatigue and joint pains from cancer treatments. Patients also feel better when they exercise and experience less anxiety and depression.”

Exercise also helps to preserve muscle; muscle loss often happens during cancer treatment, and can make recovery difficult, Ligibel says.

Those very side effects—especially fatigue—can make it difficult for patients to feel motivated to exercise in the first place. What’s important is to start now, wherever you are in your treatment, and to start slowly.

“I tell patients that 10 percent of something is better than 100 percent of nothing,” says Nancy Campbell, a clinical exercise physiologist at the Zakim Center. “Patients don’t have to go to a gym, start training for a marathon or buy expensive equipment. All it takes is a walk out your door or around your house to get started.”

Campbell suggests using a fitness tracking device, be it a basic pedometer, a smart phone app or Fitbit. After wearing it for a few weeks, you should have a baseline of your activity during treatment weeks, non-treatment weeks and weekends.

“It gives patients a good gauge of how much activity they are doing and how to gradually increase it,” she explains. “As people start to feel better, they get excited and do more and sometimes may do too much too soon. The device gives you feedback to let you know if you need to add more activity. If patients are sedentary, some of the apps buzz to remind you to move around every hour.”

To rebuild your muscle tone, Campbell suggests signing up for the free Live Strong program offered by YMCA locations across the country. This 12-week physical fitness program is designed specifically for cancer patients.

“There are also plenty of things you can do on your own at home,” she says. “You can get creative with light weights, such as soup cans, at home. But get some professional guidance before you start.”

Yoga, too, has been shown to have significant benefits for cancer patients in terms of reducing fatigue, improving sleep and improving quality of life.

“The data shows us that staying active during treatment definitely helps,” Campbell says. “Just doing a little something can take the edge off the nausea and fatigue, improve your mood and help take your mind off of it all.”

4 responses to “A Prescription for Healthy Living: How Diet and Exercise Can Help Cancer Patients

  1. I have absolutely no appetite and food looks awful to me. I make myself eat enough so I don’t lose weight but I wish there was something that was appealing.
    I am not getting chemo, but have thyroid cancer metastatic to my bone and lungs. Shouldn’t feel this way, I guess, but food aversionand then lack of energy are my biggest issues.
    Any ideas?

    1. Hi Anne,

      Thanks so much for your email. I am sorry to hear that maintaining your appetite has been challenging for you. Many cancer patients experience sensory changes like this, so you are not alone.

      Are you a patient here, at Dana-Farber? If so, I would encourage you to be in touch with our Nutrition Services Team. They will be able to guide you in planning an optimal diet that works for you in coping with this side-effect. Here is where you can reach them: https://www.dana-farber.org/for-patients-and-families/care-and-treatment/support-services-and-amenities/nutrition-services/

      If you are not, that is okay! You will still be able to find helpful resources on Dana-Farber’s website. I have pulled together a few places where you may find helpful tips below:
      -Appealing recipes with nutrition tips (there are some high-calorie options provided): https://www.dana-farber.org/health-library/recipes/
      -Nutrition videos and other resources in our Health Library: https://www.dana-farber.org/health-library/
      -Eating well during cancer video series: https://www.dana-farber.org/health-library/videos/eating-well-during-cancer/
      -Diet information on our Insight blog: http://blog.dana-farber.org/insight/?s=nutrition

      I hope this helps as a starting point for learning what works best for you.
      All the best,
      DFCI

    1. Hi there,

      In 1996, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and the founding members of Partners Healthcare System (Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Massachusetts General Hospital) consolidated their adult oncology programs and clinical research under Dana-Farber/Partners Cancer Care. Today, the three Dana-Farber/Partners Cancer Care hospitals serve more than 12,000 new cancer patients annually and comprise the largest cancer-care system in the United States.

      Patient care is provided at the combined campuses of Dana-Farber/Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston’s Longwood Medical Area, and at Massachusetts General Hospital in downtown Boston.

      At Massachusetts General Hospital, patients receive outpatient services in the Cancer Center and inpatient services in the adjoining hospital.

      Regardless of which campus patients select, they receive the highest standard of care from some of the nation’s leading cancer specialists, and have access to the same innovative treatments offering the best possible outcomes.

      You can learn more about Dana-Farber’s partners and affiliates here: https://www.dana-farber.org/about-us/partners-and-affiliates/

      Wishing you the best,
      DFCI

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