As we close out Breast Cancer Awareness month, I’d like to leave you with one important thought:
Do what you can to make the right choices for your health.
Many women shy away from thinking about serious health problems because it causes them to be overly anxious about their bodies, even when they are well. I don’t want that for you. Look for a balance that leads you to sustainable healthy living.
It’s encouraging to note that women who do develop breast cancer have a much better outlook than in the past. Since 1989, survivorship has steadily improved due to advances in treatment. In some cases, the 5-year survival rate for women in 99%. 1
Breast cancer is real concern, and naturally we want to care for our physical health. There are specific strategies a woman can use to support her wellbeing, reduce the risk of recurrence, and be a healthy survivor.
In this article, we’ll briefly review three of those: resistance training, eating a plant-based diet, and seeking out social support.
3 KEYS TO HEALTHY SURVIVORSHIP
The strategies for surviving after cancer treatment are not that different from the strategies for surviving life in general. When we move enough, eat enough, sleep enough, and stay connected to the parts of our lives that make it meaningful we enjoy better physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
Complete two, moderate intensity resistance training workouts each week, targeting all major muscle groups.*
*Check with your Doctor before beginning any exercise program.
WHY IT’S WORTH IT
Resistance training has a potent effect on recovery, longevity, and self-confidence. Feeling strong, capable, and like ourselves, is invigorating and counteracts feelings of hopelessness and worthlessness.
Muscle endurance, bone density, lean body mass, and functional strength are all adversely affected by cancer treatment.
A program that starts slow and progresses gradually can help a survivor rebuild the stamina, strength, and mental resilience needed for finding a new normal after treatment.
Sheila Agnew, a breast cancer survivor and senior fitness expert, says that she got into training after seeing a gap in training for older adults. After being diagnosed herself, her knowledge in nutrition and fitness helped her care for her body with exercise and maintain a health-centered focus after treatment. At 50+ she’s healthy, strong and fit and was recently featured on the cover of a Breast Cancer Awareness brochure from the American Cancer Society.
KNOW THE RISKS
In the past, it was thought that muscle strain could worsen symptoms of lymphedema leading physicians to discourage survivors from prescribing exercise. Studies now show that physical activity may in fact prevent or reduce symptoms.
Special care should be taken to monitor signs of lymphedema, and survivors are wise to partner closely with their health care provider to understand the benefits and the risks for them. 2-3
Unless it’s medically contraindicated, resistance training consistently improves quality of life for survivors.
CHOOSE A PLANT-BASED DIET
WHAT YOU CAN DO
“Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.” – Michael Pollan, Author
Choose real food, not food-like products.
WHY IT’S WORTH IT
Research has yet to prove that one single diet or food can prevent cancer from returning. What it has shown is that rates of recurrence are lower among those who eat a mostly plant-based diet, minimize ultra-processed foods, saturated fat from animals (sorry bacon), and red meat.
Fresh vegetables eliminate excess estrogens and promote healthy blood lipid levels. Whole foods also contain micronutrients, vitamins, and minerals that are linked to lower cancer risk. 4-5
Dr. Neal Barnard, President of the Physicians committed is quoted saying, “As a doctor, I want people to know that they already wield some of the most powerful tools to help take control over the risk of cancer: the fork and knife. ”
Considering a plant-based diet but not sure where to start? You could try one of these:
Double your current serving size of vegetables
Including 1 to 2 cupped handfuls of vegetables or fruit with main meals
Swap processed snacks foods for crunchy fresh foods
Eat a vegetarian meal for dinner once a week
SEEK OUT SOCIAL SUPPORT
For survivors, severe stress and distress are a well-documented part of life after treatment. Survivors may feel anxious, depressed, angry, and fearful of recurrence.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
Social support comes from friends, family, church, care centers, support groups, and more. Reach out to those in your existing network. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
If you don’t find the support you need within your existing network, consider looking to outside sources.
WHY IT’S WORTH IT
There’s an old saying that “plans fail for lack of counsel, but with many advisors they succeed.” In other words, life is more stressful when we try to handle everything on our own.
Emotional support from others helps to reduce stress, makes us better able to cope with problems, and improves our self-esteem.
Stress plays a role in inflammation and disease progression and managing stress can have a positive effect on long-term health outcomes.
Access to trusted advisors and a strong social support network improves quality of life for survivors. 6-9
Remember Sheila? She credits two prayer partners for keeping her uplifted and inspired, which helped her be a healthy survivor. People who feel helpless or hopeless, and overcome by worry and stress, may be less likely to follow through with treatment when they become ill or have lower adherence to helpful therapy, resulting in premature death. Strong bonds with family and friends make life meaningful and gives us something to live for.
If you’re struggling, psychologists and counselors can help. Be proactive and seek out the support you need to thrive.
As you can see, a well-rounded foundation of wellness and social support protects us from developing cancer, helps us through treatment when needed, and improves longevity and quality of life for survivors.
WHAT’S NEXT FOR YOU?
We’ve covered a LOT in this series for Breast Cancer Awareness Month! Our topics included prevention, support for a loved one in treatment, and healthy survivorship. What did you enjoy most? I hope you found a few little nuggets to think about and implement on your own. As mentioned, do what you can to make the right choices for your health. There's no perfect diet or exercise plan, and we can't foretell the future. What matters most is that you find a sustainable path toward creating a life worth living.
Thanks for being here.
Hillari Herrador is an NASM Certified Personal Trainer and Nutrition Coach specializing in women’s health and fitness and weight loss through positive behavior change. She has developed a systematic approach to weight loss using proven behavior change methods that result in less reliance on dieting and emotional eating, and more enjoyment of food and fitness. Her goal as a coach is to guide you through the process of transforming your lifestyle so that you can feel strong, healthy, and fit, for life. Coaching services include private, one-to-one phone coaching and private personal training in the local Puyallup, WA area.
1 https://www.cancer.net/cancer-types/breast-cancer/statistics Editorial Board, 07/2019, Breast Cancer Statistics, Cancer.net
2 Beasley JM, Kwan ML, Chen WY, et al. Meeting the physical activity guidelines and survival after breast cancer: findings from the after breast cancer pooling project. Breast Cancer Res Treat. 131(2):637-43, 2012.
3 Ciccone, Thomas, G, Weight Training Beneficial for Breast Cancer Survivors, Dec 2016, Practical Pain Management https://www.practicalpainmanagement.com/resources/news-and-research/weight-training-beneficial-breast-cancer-survivors
Lite, Randi S MA, RCEP1; Mejia, Stephanie CSCS2, Strength and Conditioning Journal: October 2010 - Volume 32 - Issue 5 - p 60-62, doi: 10.1519/SSC.0b013e3181d80c00, Columns: Special Populations https://journals.lww.com/nsca-scj/fulltext/2010/10000/Resistance_Training_for_Breast_Cancer_Survivors.7.aspx
4 NCCN, Nutrition for Cancer Survivors, et al 2019 https://www.nccn.org/patients/resources/life_after_cancer/nutrition.aspx
5 Park, Yikyung, et al. Dietary fiber intake and risk of breast cancer in postmenopausal women: the National Institutes of Health–AARP Diet and Health Study, The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Jul 2009 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2728649/
6 American Cancer Society, et al. Treatment and Support, Understanding Psychosocial Support Services, 2019 https://www.cancer.org/treatment/treatments-and-side-effects/emotional-side-effects/understanding-psychosocial-support-services.html
7 Lengacher CA, Reich RR, Paterson CL, et al. Examination of broad symptom improvement resulting from mindfulness-based stress reduction in breast cancer survivors: a randomized controlled trial. J Clin Oncol. 34(24):2827-34, 2016
8 Azvolinsky, Anna, Stress Management Improved Quality of Life for Breast Cancer Patients, Cancer Network, Mar 2015 https://www.cancernetwork.com/breast-cancer/stress-management-improved-quality-life-breast-cancer-patients
9 Leung J, Smith MD, McLaughlin D. Inequalities in long term health-related quality of life between partnered and not partnered breast cancer survivors through the mediation effect of social support. Psychooncology. 25(10):1222-1228, 2016.