The number of cancer survivors — anyone ever diagnosed with cancer and still alive — in the United States has more than tripled in the past 30 years. There were 9.8 million of them in 2001, the last year for which accurate numbers are available. These survivors have special physical, psychological and economic effects that need to be addressed.
The improvement in survival rates is an astonishing medical success. Only 50 percent of adults diagnosed with cancer in 1974-76 could expect to be alive five years later. For those diagnosed in 1995-2000, 64 percent are expected to live for five years. The actual survival rate is much higher for some types of cancer. Among children, 75 percent diagnosed with cancer in 1991-2000 are expected to reach adulthood.
Long-term care more important
A recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Cancer Institute attributes the increased cancer survival rates to earlier diagnoses, better treatments, prevention of related diseases and a drop in cancer recurrence.
As a result of better survival rates, long-term care for cancer survivors has grown in importance. The need will further increase as Baby Boomers age, because 60 percent of all newly diagnosed cancers occur in people at least 65 years old. The increasing number of adults who survive childhood cancer will place more demands on the nation’s health system.
Although researchers are trying to develop successful cancer treatments that have fewer late effects, more work must be done. For example, late effects seen in childhood cancer survivors include second cancers; damage to the heart, lungs and kidneys; and loss of fertility. Testicular cancer, the most common cancer in young men, now has a ten-year survival rate of 85 percent to 90 percent. But survivors of this cancer have an increased tendency to develop heart risks like high blood pressure.
The most important thing that cancer survivors — like everyone else — can do to help themselves is to take better care of themselves. Although more research is urgently needed about specific nutritional advice for cancer survivors, a healthy lifestyle is the best place to start.
The American Institute for Cancer Research recommends eating a mainly plant-based diet rich in a variety of vegetables and fruits, limiting or avoiding alcohol, restricting fatty and high-sodium foods, steering clear of charred food, maintaining a healthy weight and exercising regularly. For more survivor information, visit www.aicr.org/survivor.
Exercise and weight control are key
Many cancer survivors, however, turn to a wide range of supplements. These may be ineffective or possibly damaging. Antioxidants, which seem to help prevent cancer development when derived from foods in a balanced diet, might actually work against cancer treatments when taken as supplements. For the present, AICR advises cancer survivors to eat a balanced diet and avoid supplements, except possibly a multivitamin with no more than 100 percent Daily Value.
In addition to healthy eating, moderate exercise seems likely to offer benefits during and after cancer treatment. Cancer treatment often causes people to lose fitness and strength due to decreased activity. When doctors say it’s safe, cancer survivors should start to slowly rebuild fitness capacity. Research shows that exercise also offers a variety of mental and emotional benefits and increases a survivor’s sense of well being.
Related to exercise is a cancer survivor’s need for weight control. Overweight and weight gain during treatment has been linked to lower survival rates. Yet a recent study showed most breast cancer survivors are not getting recommended levels of physical activity to help prevent or lose excess weight. Survivors should make an effort to exercise upon a doctor’s recommendation.