June marks National Cancer Survivors Day (June 7), and it’s a day that is filled with more survivors celebrating than ever in history. There are now approximately 14 million US cancer survivors. And with improved treatment and diagnosis, the number of survivors is estimated to increase to nearly 19 million by 2024.
When it comes to how food, diet and activity link to the health of cancer survivors, there’s a lot we know now. Here, we put together the most common questions we can answer.
1. Should I avoid lifting weights and other exercises?
No. Historically, clinicians often advised cancer patients to rest and avoid activity. But not anymore. The top guideline now from the American College of Sports Medicine and other organizations is that cancer survivors avoid inactivity, even if you are undergoing treatment.
Being active can improve both physical and psychological well being. Research is ongoing as to how much of a role it plays in reducing recurrence and lengthening life.
Cancer survivors should aim to return to their normal activities and get the same amount of exercise the government recommends for the average person: 150 minutes (2.5 hours) per week of moderate intensity aerobic exercise. Survivors should also do muscle training and flexibility exercises. For those undergoing or who recently completed treatment, if possible work with a trained exercise professional and talk with your doctor about any special precautions you may need to take.
2. Can breast cancer survivors eat soy?
Breast cancer patients and survivors need no longer worry about eating moderate amounts of soy foods, finds the latest research. A moderate amount of soy is one to two standard servings daily of whole soy foods, such as tofu, soy milk and edamame. Studies have demonstrated as many as three servings a day are not associated with increased breast cancer risk.
Soy foods are good sources of protein and are among the many plant-based foods that can makeup a cancer-protective diet.
For more on soy and survivorship, read latest update of AICR’s Foods That Fight Cancer.
3. Should I avoid all red meat and become a vegetarian?
Both during and after cancer treatment, there is no health or nutrition reason to switch to a vegetarian diet.
AICR recommends that cancer survivors follow the recommendations for prevention, which include staying a healthy weight, eating a plant-based diet, and being active for at least 30 minutes daily. It does not appear that vegetarian diets are any more protective than other mostly plant-based regimens. AICR recommends that you fill your plate with two-thirds (or more) vegetables, fruits, whole grains and beans and one-third (or less) fish, poultry or meat.
Avoiding processed meat and eating moderate amounts of red meat — less than 18 ounces a week —will reduce the risk of colorectal cancers.
4. Does sugar promote cancer? Should I avoid it?
Sugar alone does not promote cancer. Consuming small amounts of sugar as part of an overall healthful diet is fine, but large amounts of sugar may indirectly raise cancer risk in two ways.
First, diets high in sugar may lead to elevated blood sugar levels, which can raise insulin levels. Routinely high levels of insulin may, in turn, increase the risk of colon cancer, and perhaps other cancers. This indirect chain of events is seen most commonly among people who are overweight and sedentary or those who have insulin resistance or diabetes in the family.
Another way high sugar consumption may increase cancer risk is by leading to weight gain. High sugar foods are typically high in calories and over time a high calorie diet leads to excess weight. And excess weight is linked to greater risk of several types of cancers.
5. Which fruits and vegetables should I be eating?
Eat as many different vegetables and fruits as you can. Variety is the key to obtaining the many protective phytochemicals in plant-based foods. Each vegetable and fruit has its own profile of health-promoting substances.
The phytochemicals found in cantaloupe are different from those in broccoli or leeks or cherries. Try to include a lot of colors on your plate. Aim to eat some bright red, green, orange, blue, purple and yellow vegetables and fruits each day. White vegetables are also part of a healthy “rainbow” on your plate, since foods like onion and garlic, cauliflower and mushrooms all provide valuable nutrients, phytochemicals and delicious flavor.
Visit the National Cancer Survivors Day site for activities and events in your area.
For eating and other living tips during and following treatment, see AICR's CancerResource.