Cancer Survivors Have Unique Wellness Needs

Posted on Monday, February 26, 2007
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Data reveal benefit of specialized post-treatment care by Jeni Baker, Cancer Monthly Staff Writer

Your cancer diagnosis was a traumatic event, but now you are able to count yourself among the world’s 25 million cancer survivors a membership that, thankfully, is growing every day.

So how can you increase your odds of staying healthy now that your primary treatment is over? After all, as a cancer survivor, you have unique health considerations.

An article in The Lancet Oncology* reviews a number of studies conducted between 2004-06 about cancer survivors and shares current data about and recommendations for the after-primary-treatment care of cancer survivors.

A Vulnerable Population

The care of cancer survivors is a relatively newfound concern because in the past, cure rates were low and there were not many survivors, says article co-author Wendy Demark-Wahnefried, PhD, of Duke University. Now survival rates have increased for some cancers, and people need to consider things like bone health, exercise and watching their diets after they have completed primary treatment.

This is particularly important because, for a variety of reasons – genetics, lifestyle and/or, ironically, the treatment(s) that overcame their disease – survivors often are especially prone to certain medical issues.

Cancer survivors really are vulnerable in terms of many diseases, Demark-Wahnefried says. And because cancer also seems to be co-linked to a number of other diseases, there is a need to monitor survivors closely.

Importance of Diet and Exercise

For example, because some cancer treatments can diminish bone density, survivors can be particularly vulnerable to osteoporosis and fractures. The LANCET article stresses the importance of speaking with your doctor about your risk and about exercise, diet, calcium and vitamin D intake, and other factors that may keep these issues at bay.

The article also states that weight management should be the uppermost nutritional priority for cancer survivors, and that it along with the intertwined issues of diet, exercise and energy balance makes up another important front in their collective effort to stay healthy.

Both a well balanced, plant-based diet and exercise are helpful especially resistance training, says Demark-Wahnefried, adding that two of the most common misconceptions among survivors are that they can eat whatever they want and they should not exercise.

Demark-Wahnefried recommends that survivors speak with their doctors about exercise and specific dietary guidelines. And, because cancer survivors are at greater risk for a host of co-morbid conditions and second cancers, they should be screened regularly, she says.

Growing Evidence

The upshot is that a gathering body of recent data suggest that cancer survivors who adhere to the appropriate health care guidelines can reduce their risk of many illnesses and extend their lives, says Demark-Wahnefried. A cancer diagnosis is a knock on the door for many people and an opportunity to take another stab at preventive behaviors.

Demark-Wahnefried co-led the recently completed Fresh Start trial, in which 543 newly diagnosed cancer patients in the U.S. and Canada were involved in a personalized mail campaign, designed to improve wellness and tailored to the types of cancer they had and factors such as age, race and coping style.

Preliminary results show that many participants changed their behaviors by doing things like exercising more, decreasing their saturated fat intake, and eating more fruits and vegetables. Even better is that many people stuck with it, Demark-Wahnefried says. The study showed how ready this population is to change, with just a little encouragement.

To be sure you are doing what is right for you, speak with your doctor. And get informed by checking out these online resources:

Dietary Guidelines

Department of Health and Human Services

Health Promotion

The National Coalition for Cancer Survivorship

Complementary and Alternative Medicine

National Cancer Institute

Annie Appleseed Project


International Osteoporosis Foundation


* Jones LW and Demark-Wahnefried W., Diet, exercise, and complementary therapies after primary treatment for cancer. Lancet Oncol. 2006 Dec;7(12):1017-26