You’ve finished your treatments for breast cancer, rung the bell, and done the happy dance! After months of being the epicenter of your cancer team, through a whirlwind of decisions, appointments, and procedures, now it’s just you … and your body. Now what?
Some women hit the ground running … as far away from cancer as they can get—back into their work, family, or social lives. Others take a much needed break to regain strength and health after treatments. And some women take up the breast cancer cause, becoming passionate educators, counselors, and supporters. But all survivors carry with them the fear of recurrence and the physical and emotional scars that cancer leaves behind.
Survivor Prevention Steps
Your treatments may have ended, but your war on cancer is not over. It’s time to focus on long-term wellness and quality of life and to take steps to help reduce your risk of recurrence.
Does it really matter how you follow up post treatment? Yes! Can you really prevent cancer from coming back? Again, yes!
There are a lot of unknowns with cancer, but here is a fact: Women who lose weight and keep it off reduce their risk of breast cancer recurrence by 25% to 40%.
It doesn’t matter where you weighed in when you started your cancer journey, but going forward it certainly matters for a number of reasons:
- Your body (mind and spirit too) need to heal. The baggage of extra weight stresses your heart, puts you at risk for diabetes, and is a self-esteem buzz-kill.
- Extra weight plus hormone therapies (such as tamoxifen and letrozole) lead to painful joints.
- There is evidence that fat cells act as a welcome mat for cancer cells.
Your 2 weapons in cancer prevention are exercise and diet. You’ve heard this before, but the stakes are a little higher now. You’ve battled through treatments, but now you are fighting for a cancer-free future.
Move!—Plain and Simple
Thousands of women were studied after their breast cancer diagnoses to determine the impact of lifestyle changes on cancer recurrence. Women who exercised had a lower risk of breast cancer recurrence than women who did not.
Every community across America hosts fun runs, walks, or bike rides. If you’ve never taken a walk before, make it your goal to walk a 5K. If you’ve run a 5K, challenge yourself to a 10K or half marathon. Get your bike out and explore your neighborhood. Take a class. Learn to swim. Join a walking group. Download a fitness app and monitor your progress. Every survivor started somewhere on the exercise scale between active and sedentary. The goal is to move up the scale, to challenge yourself. You’ve survived chemotherapy, surgery, and radiation. A 5K? No problem.
Healthy, Whole Foods (That You Can Pronounce)
Exercise can only take you so far in your quest to minimize fat cells, make your body strong, and stimulate your immune system. Making healthy choices about what you eat is the other half of the living cancer-free equation. Here are a few guidelines—some of which you may have seen before but they may now have new meaning:
- Sugar is the enemy. It breaks down in the body and is stored as fat (the cancer welcome mat). Sugar also acts as an inflammatory, further irritating sore joints. This is a tough category to reduce in our diets, but start with the obvious, such as soda and candy. Move on to nutrition-empty processed foods like pasta and white bread. If you were already a healthy eater when you started your cancer journey, consider changing out fruits and adding more vegetables. (Yes, even the natural sugars in fruit can challenge weight loss.)
- Protein feeds muscles and muscles burn calories more efficiently than fat. Skinless chicken, lean meats, eggs, peanut butter, legumes, and Greek yogurt are all healthy choices that feed your muscles.
- If you can't pronounce it, don't eat it. Chemicals in food are foreign to the body’s digestive system—it doesn’t know what to do with them, so they get stored (usually as fat, the cancer “welcome mat”). Try to avoid processed foods, which just leave you feeling hungry!
Remember, these are guidelines. Be gentle with yourself as you navigate prevention choices. Make each meal an opportunity for healthy choice. Don’t get discouraged after a binge; instead pull on your big-girl pants, think about a cancer-free life, and make a better choice next time.
The New Normal
Preventing the recurrence of cancer is a life-long commitment. Moving up the exercise scale and making healthy food choices are your new normal. It’s just you….and your body. So what are you going to do?