If you’re a colon cancer survivor, here’s good news about how a healthy lifestyle can prevent colon cancer recurrence with diet changes and regular exercise.
The number of Americans dying from colorectal cancers has decreased in recent years, thanks in large part to more people having colonoscopies. If precancerous polyps are spotted during the screening, they are removed before cancer develops. And if a colonoscopy catches colon cancer at an early stage and it’s treated, the disease is often highly curable.
But colon cancer still takes the lives of about 50,000 Americans annually. In fact, when it comes to malignancies that affect both men and women, colorectal cancer (which includes malignancies of the colon and rectum) is the second leading cause of cancer deaths in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And it’s understandable colon cancer survivors can be concerned about their future and whether they’ll experience a recurrence of the disease.
Of course, ongoing regularly screening is important so any new malignancy can be spotted and treated early. But now there’s something else colon cancer survivors can do every day to help prevent colon cancer from returning.
The key, according to a study by University of California San Francisco (UCSF) researchers, is to follow the American Cancer Society’s Nutrition and Physical Activity Guidelines for Cancer Survivors. These recommendations include maintaining a healthy body weight, getting regular exercise, drinking alcohol only in moderation, and eating a diet rich in whole grains, vegetables, and fruits, and low in red and processed meats.
Although the guidelines were first published in 2012, it wasn’t known if following them would actually improve outcomes for colon cancer patients long-term. To find out, Erin Van Blarigan, ScD, UCSF assistant professor of epidemiology and biostatistics, and colleagues studied 992 patients with stage III colon cancer. While the research team investigated the impact of two different kinds of chemotherapy on the patients, they also investigated whether lifestyle factors played a role in the research subjects’ survival and whether they had a colon cancer recurrence.
Their findings showed the colon cancer patients who reported they followed the basic healthy eating and physical activity tenets recommended by the American Cancer Society — both during cancer treatment and surgery and afterwards — had a much better chance of not only surviving their disease but also avoiding additional colon cancer.
The researchers used a scoring system to measure whether a lifestyle was healthy or not. They gave more points to the healthiest behaviors, such as regular exercise and eating a nutritious diet. The results of the study, presented at the annual American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO), revealed a 42 percent lower chance of death for the cancer survivors who scored the highest in healthy lifestyle choices.
What’s more, there was a significant trend for a lower chance of cancer recurrence among those who ate a healthy diet and pursued regular physical activity, compared to the cancer survivors with less healthy lifestyles. And when drinking moderate amounts of alcohol was included in the score, the survivors with the highest lifestyle score had a 51 percent lower chance of death and a 36 percent lower chance of cancer recurrence than colon cancer survivors who had the lowest healthy lifestyle scores.
It turned out the benefits associated with a healthy lifestyle were not driven by one thing alone — like exercise or a certain body weight or diet. Instead, all the factors of a healthy lifestyle were important when it came to raising the odds for surviving cancer and keeping a recurrence of the disease at bay.
The researchers pointed out it’s not unusual for cancer survivors to have chronic health problems, such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes, and following a healthy lifestyle that includes a nutritious diet and regular physical activity can help these conditions as well as improve outcomes of colon cancer treatment and lower the odds of cancer returning.
“Patients often ask what else they can do in addition to chemotherapy to prevent their cancer from coming back, and the good news is that we have some information to point them to from a fairly large dataset.” said Daniel F. Hayes, MD, president of the ASCO. “This study clearly shows that in addition to good, standard cancer treatment, which has reduced mortality due to colorectal cancer substantially, what patients eat, drink, and do afterward can make a difference.”
March 18, 2020
Janet O’Dell, RN