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If I already have cancer, do I still have to worry about risk factors?

Risk factors after diagnosis
It’s never too late to start taking better care of yourself—even if you already have cancer.

It’s never too late to start taking better care of yourself—even if you already have cancer. That includes avoiding unhealthy risk factors, such as smoking, excessive alcohol use, poor eating habits, obesity, lack of physical activity, or sun exposure.

Why? While you can’t do anything about some risk factors, such as age or family history, by modifying lifestyle-related behaviors, you may:

  • Reduce your chances of developing new conditions, such as diabetes or heart disease
  • Improve your cancer treatment outcomes
  • Better manage, or prevent, related side effects 
  • Reduce the risk of your cancer recurring or a new cancer forming
  • Improve your overall health and frame of mind

“The same risk factors that may have raised a person’s risk of the first cancer can also contribute to a risk of having other cancers,” says Anthony Perre, MD, Vice Chief of Staff and Director of New Patient Intake at Cancer Treatment Centers of America® (CTCA), Philadelphia. “For example, smoking not only raises a person’s risk of lung cancer, but it can also increase the risk of other cancer types—such as mouth cancer, esophageal cancer and colon cancer. Patients who have received radiation therapy may also be at higher risk for skin cancer, which is why it is especially important to be mindful of sun exposure.”

Improved cancer diagnostics and treatments have contributed to a steady rise in the number of Americans surviving longer with cancer. According to the National Cancer Institute, about 17 million cancer survivors are living in the United States today–about 5 percent of the population. That number is expected to increase to more than 22 million in 10 years and to 26 million by 2040. Positive lifestyle changes, even after a cancer diagnosis, may help survivors improve their quality of life. It may also help them build the strength and stamina needed to face health challenges that may have been caused by their disease.

“Today, a large percentage of patients diagnosed with cancer become long-term survivors,” Dr. Perre says. “There is clear evidence that patients who increase their level of physical activity and achieve and maintain a healthy weight can decrease their risk of cancer recurrence.” And while there’s no guarantee that a healthier lifestyle will keep cancer from recurring or a new cancer from developing, addressing your risk factors may improve your ability to deal with the cancer you already have. Exercise may lessen anxiety and depression, for example. It may also improve self-esteem and reduce fatigue and nausea.

Dr. Perre speaks from experience, having spent time on both sides of a cancer diagnosis. Not only is he a physician who treats cancer patients; he is a survivor himself—diagnosed with stage IIA Hodgkin lymphoma in 2007. In the years since his treatments, Dr. Perre’s scans have shown no evidence of disease. And he’s made several lifestyle changes to help stay healthy, including changing his diet and becoming an avid runner who has competed in 5Ks and marathons. “As a cancer survivor, I know there are many things I cannot control,” Dr. Perre said. “What is in your control are what I refer to as the four pillars of survivorship.” They are:

  • Diet: Some diets, such as a Mediterranean diet, have been shown to reduce the risk of cancer recurrence and heart disease. A Mediterranean diet limits red meat, processed foods and alcohol, focusing instead on fruits, vegetables, nuts, herbs, whole grains and beans, as well as moderate amounts of fish and seafood, poultry, dairy and eggs.
  • Exercise: Increased physical activity may also reduce cancer recurrence risk. Anyone who hasn’t been following an exercise regimen should increase activity gradually, ultimately reaching the recommended 150 minutes of aerobic activity and two days of strength training a week.
  • Mindfulness: Managing stressors may improve your quality of life and overall wellness. Stress is real for many cancer survivors, who may suffer from anxiety, distress and fear of cancer recurrence.
  • Sleep: Strategies that help people achieve a more restful sleep may help reduce fatigue and improve immune function. About one in four cancer survivors develop a sleep disorder.

Certain lifestyle risk factors may also worsen the side effects of some cancer treatments, such as chemotherapy and radiation, Dr. Perre says. “Some treatments may cause irritation of the mouth, called stomatitis, or injury to the lining of the esophagus, stomach and gastrointestinal tract. Chemicals that irritate or inflame these areas, such as tobacco smoke and alcohol, may make these side effects worse,” he says.

When making lifestyle changes, do so sensibly, Dr. Perre says. If a change involves your diet, discuss it with a registered dietitian who works specifically with cancer patients, so he or she can help you manage potential side effects and maintain adequate nutrition. Consult your doctor if you have sleep issues or if you want to start a new exercise regimen.

Learn more about cancer survivorship.