Health Column: Better outcomes for cancer patients

More people are living longer after they get a cancer diagnosis, according to new figures reported by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The 11.7 million survivors estimated for 2007 in the announcement are a huge increase from 1971’s figure of 3 million and 9.8 million in 2001. Because compiling the total takes so long, today’s figure is probably even higher.

An aging society has a great deal to do with higher numbers of cancer diagnoses: people over age 65 are at 10 times greater risk for cancer than younger folks, and 7 million of the reported 11.7 million survivors were age 65-plus.

“For many people, cancer has become a chronic illness to manage with other health conditions,” said Julia Rowland, director of the Office of Cancer Survivorship at the National Cancer Institute, at a recent American Institute for Cancer Research conference session.

Survival of three major cancers — breast, colon and prostate — has strong links to a healthy lifestyle, according to research findings. Following the AICR guidelines to eat a healthy diet, get at least 30 minutes daily of moderate physical activity and maintain a healthy weight is important for survivors as well as to prevent cancer in the first place.

The growing number of cancer survivors in the United States has made it possible for researchers to begin to study this unique and diverse population, according to AICR’s director of research, Dr. Susan Higginbotham,

“In the coming months and years, as the evidence base grows, we can expect to see more targeted information and recommendations to help cancer survivors make smart choices about food, nutrition and physical activity,” she said. “The new research under way examines a wide variety of health and quality-of-life outcomes important to cancer survivors and their families.”

Eating a healthy, mostly plant-based diet of minimally processed foods while limiting red meat is the same advice given by health professionals to their patients for preventing and surviving diabetes and heart disease. So is getting regular physical activity, with a doctor’s approval, for cancer patients and people who may have other health conditions. Avoiding inactivity is a cornerstone of the Physical Activity Guidelines for Older Americans published by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Having cancer is a strong motivation to become healthier. Cancer survivors are more susceptible to diabetes and heart disease, infections and other health problems, making healthy habits a must. More effective therapies are also allowing people to live with cancer longer.

This column was provided by the American Institute for Cancer Research, which focuses on the relationship between diet and cancer and translates the results of its research into practical information for the public.