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Life After Cancer: Diet, Exercise, and Weight

Eating a healthy diet, staying at a healthy weight, and getting exercise are key parts of your recovery after cancer treatment. Making these changes part of your everyday life can help reduce your risk of cancer coming back, as well as your risk of another kind of cancer. They can help reduce your risk of other health problems, too, like heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes.

Why diet, exercise, and weight matter after cancer

Good nutrition, exercise, and a healthy weight can help your body recover from cancer. They can also lower your risk for other health problems after treatment. They can help you: 

  • Get stronger. Exercise can help build muscle strength, help you stay flexible, and increase your endurance. It can also help you get to or stay at a healthy weight. Foods with protein, calcium, vitamins, and minerals can help rebuild muscle. They can also help strengthen bone.

  • Fight infection. Many people have a higher risk for infection during and after cancer treatment. Healthy eating and exercise can boost your immune system.

  • Protect your heart health. Some kinds of cancer treatment can raise your risk for heart disease. Exercise and healthy eating habits may help lower this risk.

  • Lower your risk for diabetes. There may be a link between some cancer treatments and a higher risk for type 2 diabetes. You can lower this risk by staying at a healthy weight, getting regular exercise, and eating well.

  • Lower your risk for more cancer. Being overweight increases a person’s risk for many kinds of cancer. For a cancer survivor, it can also raise the risk that the cancer will come back. Survivors can also go on to develop another unrelated second cancer. Losing weight can help lower this risk. Physical activity can also help lessen the risk for some kinds of cancer.

  • Make you feel less tired. Extreme tiredness (fatigue) is very common after cancer treatment. Regular exercise and a healthy diet may help you feel less tired.

What should you eat?

Follow the nutrition advice of the USDA’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans and Harvard University’s Healthy Eating Plate. They advise you to: 

  • Eat plenty of vegetables and fruits. These have fiber to keep you full and nutrients to keep you healthy.

  • Choose whole grains. They can help lower your cholesterol. They also keep blood sugar steady.

  • Get healthy protein. Healthy protein comes from poultry, eggs, lean meats, and fish. You can also get it from nuts, seeds, beans, peas, and tofu.

  • Skip unhealthy foods. Limit or don't eat foods made with refined grains, added sugar or salt, or saturated fats. Don't eat trans fats, like margarine or partially hydrogenated oils. These are commonly in baked goods and snack foods.

  • Use healthy oils. Use olive or canola oil, and limit butter.

  • Drink water, tea, or coffee. Don't add sugar. Limit milk and dairy. Stay away from sugary drinks like juice and soda.

  • Don't drink alcohol. If you do drink, limit yourself. Women should have no more than 1 drink a day, and men should have no more than 2. One drink is 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of 80-proof liquor.

If you need more help, ask your healthcare provider to refer you to a dietitian. A dietitian can teach you more about eating habits that help to keep you healthy.

How much exercise should you get?

The experts at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services  say that adults should get at least 75 minutes of vigorous exercise each week. Or at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise a week. This is about 20 minutes of moderate activity each day. An example is taking a brisk walk.

If you're just recovering from treatment, this may not be possible at first. Talk with your healthcare team about activities that are safe for you before you start anything. Then start with just a few minutes each day. Slowly work your way up to 150 minutes each week. As you get stronger, you can add more. Aim for a mix of aerobic and muscle-strengthening activities.

If you were physically active before cancer, talk with your healthcare provider about how to get started again. Do this before you start exercising.

Your healthcare provider can help you figure out which activities are safest for you. This may change as you recover. Some examples are: 

  • Exercise classes

  • Gardening

  • Walking

  • Riding a bike

  • Swimming laps or doing a water exercise class

  • Yoga

Your provider can also help you figure out how to increase your activity level over time.

What’s a healthy weight?

Some people lose weight during cancer treatment. But many people gain weight. And many people are already overweight when they're diagnosed with cancer. What’s a healthy weight for you? Talk with your healthcare provider. Ask what your goals should be. Your provider may be able to tell you about safe ways to lose weight. Or your provider can help you find support nearby for weight loss if needed.

If you're having trouble

There are many reasons you may struggle with a healthy diet, exercise, and your weight after cancer. For instance: 

  • Side effects can make it hard to eat. Treatment side effects can make it hard to eat healthy foods. This can happen even long after treatment ends. You may have nausea. Or you may have a changed sense of taste. Surgery or radiation may have affected the way you chew, swallow, or digest food.

  • You may feel too tired to exercise. Fatigue and overall weakness after cancer treatment can make you not want to exercise.

  • Treatment may affect your weight. Treatment for some cancers can affect the hormones in your body. In some cases, this can make you gain weight after treatment. It can make it hard to stay at a healthy weight.

  • Anxiety or depression can make it hard to commit to healthy living. It may feel harder to stick to healthy eating if you feel anxious or depressed. It can also make it hard to get out and exercise regularly.

If you're having trouble eating, managing your weight, or getting enough exercise, talk with your healthcare provider. Your provider can help you figure out ways to manage these problems. This might include joining a support group. Or it might be changing your medicine. These and other things can help you stay on track.

Get the advice and help you need to be as healthy as possible after cancer treatment.

Online Medical Reviewer: Kimberly Stump-Sutliff RN MSN AOCNS
Online Medical Reviewer: L Renee Watson MSN RN
Online Medical Reviewer: Preeti Sudheendra MD
Date Last Reviewed: 3/1/2021
© 2021 The StayWell Company, LLC. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare provider's instructions.
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