For those fortunate enough to survive cancer, living a healthy lifestyle couldn't be more important. While studies are ongoing, there is definitive research showing certain behaviors and foods can help improve long-term health after cancer.
Exercise appears to be beneficial for cancer survivors, potentially reducing the risk of a recurrence. It improves mood, increases stamina, decreases anxiety and, in some cases, expedites recovery. Exercise also can help you achieve a desirable body weight, whether you've gained or lost weight during treatment.
The American Cancer Society recommends exercising five or more days a week, 30 minutes per session, but lingering side-effects of treatment can delay the best of intentions. So, start with brief sessions, knowing every minute of activity will improve strength and endurance.
With the cessation of treatment, normal eating patterns will gradually resume, but most important is food safety at every meal; infection is a big concern among survivors.
When dining out, avoid sushi, salad bars, rare meats, fish and shellfish, poultry and eggs, since these items have a greater prevalence of germs. At home, scrub fruit and vegetables well; avoid raw honey and raw juices, selecting pasteurized varieties instead; cook meats thoroughly; and keep your refrigerator and all utensils, cutting boards and counters clean, replacing sponges weekly.
Scientists are still uncertain if specific foods can prevent cancer from returning, but epidemiological studies show a diet rich in phytochemicals from fruit, legumes, grains and vegetables may thwart the action of carcinogens.
Eating five servings daily of fruit and vegetables should become routine. Dark green, leafy vegetables like Swiss chard, spinach, kale and beet greens are good choices, especially when prepared with garlic. In laboratory tests, the allyl sulfate in garlic has been shown to block the spread of cancer.
Fresh herbs such as rosemary, mint, thyme, oregano and basil should not be underestimated; they have documented medicinal properties related to the terpines in their essential oils. Terpines appear to block inflammation by reducing the production of cox-2, the principal enzyme used by cancer cells to cause inflammation.
Whole grains such as bulgur, barley, oats and brown rice are a good source of saponins, a water and fat-soluble plant compound that acts like an antibiotic. They may help fight infection and protect you from a recurrence.
Fatty fish such as salmon, tuna, herring, cod and sardines are good protein sources. They have the added benefit of being rich sources of healthy, omega-3 fatty acids, which play a vital role in boosting immunity.
Flax seed, available whole and in meal and flour forms, may also be worth including in your diet. Clinical trials are needed to determine its effectiveness in preventing or treating cancer, but early indications show the lignins in flax may act as mild anti-estrogens.
And while evidence of a possible cancer-protective role for vitamin D has also been found in laboratory studies, nothing is conclusive. However, consuming vitamin D-rich foods and beverages such as fortified orange justice, milk and high-fiber, fortified cereals may just decrease the risk of recurrence and improve survival.
Tina Ruggiero, M.S., R.D., L.D., is a nutrition expert and award-winning author. Her new book, "The Truly Healthy Family Cookbook," will be available in August. Find Tina at www.TinaRuggiero.com.