Health and Wellness
While cancer is a major event for all who are diagnosed, it brings with it the chance for growth. For many people, the transition to survivorship serves as strong motivation to make lifestyle changes. Many breast cancer survivors have told me that the experience led them to make important changes in their lives. For example, they a have learned how to take better care of themselves. Others draw from their experience to become advocates to improve cancer research, treatment, and care.
I hope this section serves as a resource and inspiration to regain and build strength, reduce the severity of side effects, reduce the risk of developing secondary or subsequent cancers or other health issues, and enjoy life more.
Evidence has suggested that moderate-intensity exercise can improve survival and outcomes in breast cancer survivors. Physical activity can help to improve mental health conditions (anxiety, depression), physical function, health related quality of life, body size and image1.
Additionally, upper body strength training can improve mobility and lymphedema. Although there is no clear consensus on the “best” type of physical activity for breast cancer survivors, the general recommendation would be at least 30 minutes of aerobic exercise three times per week and resistance training twice a week2. Additionally, supervised resistance training led to reductions in lymphedema symptoms in breast cancer survivors.
Studies have shown that exercising regularly may help prevent the recurrence of breast cancer. Further, it can help breast cancer survivors reduce anxiety, depression, and fatigue; increase feelings of optimism; and reach and maintain a healthy weight. Exercise also reduces the risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, and diabetes.
Remember, even a small amount of physical activity is helpful!
The existing data is inconsistent when recommending the intake of specific dietary nutrients. However, the general recommendation is to focus on specific dietary nutrients that are fruit and vegetable base and, avoid processed foods, red meat and fat. A few observational studies have shown that ingestion of a diet rich in fruit and vegetables and low in meat and processed food has decreased the overall mortality rate. Further, alcohol use after breast cancer diagnosis was also associated with an increased risk of breast cancer recurrence.
Therefore, choosing to eat nutritious, healthy meals may help breast cancer survivors regain strength after treatment. Talk with your health care team about which resources are available to help you eat well. A registered dietitian can help you understand your nutritional needs, make healthy eating choices, and create appropriate meal plans.
REDUCING ALCOHOL INTAKE
Drinking alcohol after a breast cancer diagnosis has also been associated with an increased risk of breast cancer recurrence. Therefore, it is highly recommended that you limit your alcohol intake. A large study showed that women who had 3-4 drinks/week had significantly higher rates of recurrence and death compared to those who had one drink a week. Overweight and postmenopausal women experienced the greatest.
STOPPING TOBACCO USE
Stopping tobacco use is the single most important change a person can make to lower future cancer risk. Tobacco is linked to an increased risk of breast cancer recurrence. If you smoke or use tobacco of any kind, trying to quit can also improve your recovery and overall health.
Read my recent publication on the association between tobacco smoking and breast cancer recurrence. Many resources are available to help, including quitlines, support groups, medications, and counseling.
MAINTAINING HEALTHY WEIGHT
Obesity is a well-established risk factor for breast cancer diagnosis. Weight gain after a breast cancer diagnosis may be associated with an increased risk of recurrence, although the available data do not consistently report this association3. Despite the abundant data linking obesity and poor prognosis in early breast cancer, there have been relatively few studies evaluating the efficacy and potential benefits of weight-loss interventions in breast cancer survivors.
Being diagnosed with a serious illness like cancer is very stressful, and everyday life often adds to this stress. Learning how to manage stress is extremely important for your recovery. Experiencing high levels of stress for a long time has been linked to health problems and a lower quality of life. A big step in reducing stress can be made through small changes in your life, such as learning to say “no” to tasks you don’t have the time or energy to complete, doing your most important tasks first, and getting help with potentially challenging issues, such as finances.
Reaching out for spiritual support. For some, spirituality and faith are a source of comfort and guidance. Many hospitals and cancer centres have chaplains who can give support to people of all faiths, as well as those who don’t consider themselves religious at all. Local cancer organizations may also be able to help you find religious or spiritual leaders in your community who have experience helping cancer survivors.
Keeping a journal or blogging. Writing down your thoughts and feelings starts a process of self-discovery and, for some, of spiritual development. Allowing yourself to think every day or every week about your feelings is a way to get to know yourself better and to understand what is important to you now. Because blogging is much more public than journaling, it may also connect you with, and help inspire, other people who are going through a similar situation. At the same time, be sure you carefully consider what you want to publicly share about yourself and your medical history in a blog or through social media.
Complementary therapies, including acupuncture, mindfulness, music therapy, and yoga, have been explored as treatments in cancer survivors. While there is no evidence that these interventions decrease recurrences, they may improve quality of life and mood.