What does it mean to be a cancer survivor? How can I improve my nutrition? Where can I find reliable information on survivorship nutrition? Since June is National Cancer Survivors Month, let’s explore these questions together.
Who is a “Cancer Survivor?”
The National Cancer Institute states, “survivorship focuses on the health and well-being of a person with cancer from the time of diagnosis until the end of life.” Others may say survivorship begins when treatment for cancer is completed. The use of the words “survivorship” and “survivor” empowers some people after a cancer diagnosis, but others may be uncomfortable with the terms or use them differently. No matter where you are on your journey with cancer or how you use the word “survivor,” it is important to know how to make good food choices.
How can I improve my nutrition throughout survivorship?
Individual nutrition needs may depend on the type of cancer, treatments received, and other health history. But, there are some common themes in survivorship nutrition that apply to most cancer survivors. Let’s use the letters of the word HOPE to focus on 4 goals.
Have a variety of foods.
Choose foods from all the food groups each week, as tolerated. The diversity of foods you consume, especially plant foods, fuels your immune system and strength. Different foods offer different nutrients and phytochemicals so eating a variety of foods help your body get everything it needs to function. The American Gut Project reports that people who eat more than 30 types of plants each week have a more diverse microbiome (the good bacteria in your gut) than those of people who ate only 10 or less plant types per week. Seventy to eighty percent of your immune cells are present in your gut. Keep your gut well fed.
Own your lifestyle choices.
The choices you make can help improve your health and wellbeing and reduce your risk of future disease. Here are some examples of healthy food choices:
- Fill 75% of your plate with plants and 25% or less of your plate with animal protein. This can help you avoid processed foods and excess calories.
- Choose fish, poultry (chicken & turkey), and plant proteins more often than red meats (beef, lamb, and pork).
- Include heart healthy unsaturated fats from vegetables; avoid saturated fats from animals. Measure fats and oils with a teaspoon.
- Drink unsweetened and non-alcoholic beverages whenever possible for hydration.
- Bake, broil, or steam foods, instead of frying.
Plan to succeed.
Meal planning can help you achieve your nutrition goals. Instead of eating what happens to be available or the quickest to prepare when you are already hungry, plan ahead to ensure that you have healthy meals and snacks readily available. Check out our tips for Meal Planning and Grocery Shopping. You can also use the free LLS Health ManagerTM app to plan meals, create grocery lists and find recipes.
When meal planning, don’t forget to include variety in your meals. This can even include trying new foods and flavors from different cultures. Search for recipes online or ask friends and family for suggestions to add to your weekly menus. (Cancer treatment can cause taste changes. Trying new flavors can help you find foods that are more palatable.)
If side effects from cancer treatment make it difficult to eat or prepare healthy foods, ask for a referral to a registered dietitian with experience in oncology nutrition. Visit Managing Cancer Side Effects for tips and strategies. Fatigue from cancer or treatment may make planning and preparing food a challenge. Ask for help from family and friends.
Do something active every day, as mobility allows. Exercise can help increase energy, aid in digestion, improve sleep, support mental health, and avoid weight gain. The American Heart Association recommends at least 150 minutes of physical activity each week to reduce the risk of disease. This time can be broken up over several days and even in small 10 minute increments. What can you do to be active? Walking, swimming, practicing yoga, biking, gardening, and playing sports (pickleball, anyone?) are all examples of physical activity. Ask for a referral to a physical therapist for a safe fitness program to meet your needs.
Where can I find reliable information on survivorship nutrition?
Survivorship is your time to shine! Many resources and healthcare professionals are available to support you. The amount of information may be scary or overwhelming. It can also be difficult to know what information is reliable. A registered dietitian with experience in oncology nutrition is your best source of nutrition information!
PearlPoint Nutrition Services, a program of The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society (LLS), offers free consultations to patients and caregivers of all cancer types. Schedule a consultation to talk to a registered dietitian about survivorship nutrition.
To find a registered dietitian in your area for regular follow-up, use the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ Find a Nutrition Expert Tool.
Download or order the free LLS resources:
Where can I find more survivorship resources?
Check out the resource below for more information and tools to help you navigate survivorship.
Survivorship Workbooks: Use the free Survivorship Workbook to collect all the important information you need throughout diagnosis, treatment, follow-up care and long-term management of a blood cancer.
There are three versions of the workbook:
LLS HealthManagerTM: With this free mobile app, manage your health by tracking your side effects, medication, food and hydration, questions for your doctor, grocery lists and more. Click here to learn more and download.
Survivorship Videos: Topics include communicating with your healthcare team, body image, sexuality, caregiver support, anxiety and more. Click here for a list of videos.
Find more at Resources for Survivors.
Keep taking the next best step to make healthy food choices and to care for your total self. You are worth it!