Ask the Dietitian: Living Well after Cancer

survivors at yoga

The benefits of a Mediterranean diet and post-treatment yoga programs are the focus of this month’s special “Ask the Dietitian” all about living well after cancer. If you’ve got questions, our registered dietitian Karen Collins has your answers.

Reducing Cancer Risk with the Mediterranean Diet

A growing number of studies do link a Mediterranean pattern of eating with lower cancer risk. But it’s important to emphasize that these studies do not establish Mediterranean diets as more protective than other healthy ways of eating. Eating more vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans and nuts is at the core of this diet, regardless of how you flavor them and which specific foods you choose.

Higher Mediterranean diet scores were linked with about 15-20 percent fewer deaths from cancer compared to people with lowest scores in an analysis of three large U.S. studies that followed people for many years. However, similar results were seen in the same subjects who had scores showing eating habits that more closely resembled the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans or a DASH-style diet. What these scores have in common is that all reflect eating habits that focus on nutrient-rich plant foods as the largest part of the plate.

Yoga Programs Get Survivors Moving

Yoga is now among the recommended activities to improve quality of life during and after cancer treatment for some cancer survivors. Research is growing in support of the physical benefits of exercise during and after cancer treatment, and while limited research shows such benefits with yoga, this probably varies with the amount and type of movement. According to clinical practice guidelines for breast cancer from the Society for Integrative Oncology, there is enough research supporting the use of yoga, that it should be offered to breast cancer survivors seeking ways to decrease anxiety and stress, and improve mood. Although research suggests that decreases in fatigue, and improvements in sleep quality and quality of life may be small, yoga may also be helpful for these purposes to some breast cancer survivors.

Randomized controlled trials also indicate potential for yoga to decrease certain menopausal symptoms (such as hot flushes and night sweats) in women taking anti-estrogen medications , although results are not consistent. Less research is available regarding yoga among survivors of other cancers, although some studies do report improvements in sleep and health-related quality of life.

Other forms of “meditative movement,” such as tai chi and qigong, could potentially offer similar benefits. Studies suggest that meditation, group programs in stress reduction, massage, music therapy, relaxation techniques and breathing exercises can also help address side effects faced by cancer survivors. Yoga includes a variety of forms; each may offer somewhat different benefits, and depending on physical limitations for an individual cancer survivor, some may be more appropriate than others. As with any plans for physical activity, cancer survivors may want to discuss interest in yoga, and potential for any recommended modifications, with their health care providers.

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