It may seem to be cliche, but that apple does apparently keep the doctor away, particularly if you are eating that apple while taking a brisk walk.
Diet and exercise before and after a cancer diagnosis can significantly increase your odds of beating the disease, said Michael Anderson, a board-certified radiologist with Comprehensive Cancer Centers of Nevada.
“Diet and exercise is a very important part to cancer treatment for a lot of reasons,” he said. “You can recover faster from the side effects of radiation for one, and some recent studies have linked cancer to obesity and poor diet as a reason for the recurrence rate of breast cancer.”
Being in good physical and mental shape is better for a patient’s overall well-being and their ability to handle treatments.
“We feel it will be better to tolerate the treatment if they exercise,” he said. “A lot of women who do yoga will do better with radiation both physically and mentally than those who do something else, such as aerobics or nothing at all.”
The U.S. National Cancer Institute, American Institute of Cancer Research and the American Cancer Society each recommend that cancer patients and survivors get a good amount of exercise while maintaining a healthy diet of natural, not processed, foods.
“Exercise helps cope with stress, fatigue and numerous other side effects and symptoms commonly experienced by our patients during and after cancer treatment,” said Brian Lawenda, a radiation oncologist with 21st Century Oncology.
Studies have shown that moderate-intensity physical activity, about 150 minutes per week, may improve cancer outcomes and overall health.
“The sooner you start exercising, the better you’ll feel, the fewer medications you’re likely to need, and the lower your risk will be for complications,” he said. “We recommend implementing an exercise routine before treatment gets underway if possible, especially if you have been inactive.”
But proceed with care.
“It is important to discuss with your doctor and care team the type of exercise you are considering to ensure it will be safe,” Lawenda said. “If you’re cleared for full activity, your goal should be at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity, five days a week or more, which can be broken up throughout the day.”
And don’t forget to warm up and cool down with at least three to five minutes of gentle stretching.
Diet is also vital to a patient’s positive outcome.
“Not getting enough calories or nutrients may increase your risk of treatment-related side effects and reduce your tolerance to your prescribed treatments,” Lawenda said.
Going natural with phytonutrients can also improve your success rate while undergoing treatment. Phytonutrients are naturally occurring compounds that are found mainly in plant foods such as vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts, herbs, spices and mushrooms.
“Many of these compounds have similar cancer-fighting effects as the drugs used by oncologists to treat cancer and act on various stages of cancer’s development,” Lawenda said. “These food compounds are thought to halt the development and spread of cancer cells, notably by promoting cancer cells to self-destruct (apoptosis) or by blocking the growth of new blood vessels to feed growing tumors (angiogenesis).”
Eating a wide variety of foods containing the compounds can be more protective than eating a lot of just one food type.
“For instance, although broccoli contains several compounds thought to have anti-cancer actions, eating it every day of the year isn’t likely to offer as much protection as, say, eating broccoli one day, peppers the next, tomatoes and onions the day after that,” he said.
Different plant foods also reinforce the other’s effects.
“The antioxidant lycopene in tomato skins is absorbed better when the tomatoes have been cooked with olive oil and garlic than when eaten on their own,” he said. “This is called ‘nutrient synergy’ and is an important concept to remember when preparing meals.”
While he recommends 2 to 3 cups of fruit and 3 to 5 cups of vegetables every day, he does understand it can be a bit difficult for most people. In that case, Lawenda says cancer patients and survivors should consume fewer simple carbohydrates, such as sugar, breads, rice, pastas and baked goods.
“These foods often have a high glycemic load, so they tend to cause a rapid spike in your blood sugar after consuming them,” he said. “This can lead to inflammation, oxidation, overconsumption of empty calories, weight gain, insulin resistance and fatty liver disease. All of these have been associated with an increased risk of cancer development, recurrence and death.”
Inflammatory foods that contain higher amounts of omega-6 fats and trans fats should also be avoided.
“Omega-6 rich foods are often found in commercially raised meats and poultry, dairy and fast foods, particularly, fried foods,” he said. “Trans fats are typically found in processed foods, such as margarine and baked goods.”
These unhealthful fats promote oxidation, the production of damaging free radicals and inflammation, a killer.
“The best way to avoid these is to look at the food labels and pick foods that contain zero trans fats,” he said.
Instead, try to eat proteins that are from animals that contain higher amounts of omega-3 fatty acids, such as small, cold-water fish like mackerel, sardines, anchovies and wild salmon and grass-fed or pasture-raised meat and poultry.
“Many plants also contain a decent amount of protein, such as legumes, corn, kale, mushrooms, artichokes, broccoli,” he said.
And, of course, try to go as green and organic as possible.
“Since organic foods are often more costly, I’d rather my patients consume adequate amounts of commercially grown fruits and vegetables if money is an issue, rather than skimp on these important foods,” he said. “Making sure you consume a diet that supports you during and after cancer treatment is essential.”