Healthy Aging: It’s Just a Number
Treatments for cancer are more effective than 50 years ago. With the emphasis now on earlier detection through regular screening, treatment outcomes have improved greatly. The American Cancer Society reports that the cancer death rate declined 26 % from 1990 to 2015. Many people are living long, active lives with all types of cancers. The National Cancer Institute reports that the number of people living after a cancer diagnosis in American doubled from 7 million in 1992 to 14 million in 2014, with the expectation that survivors will make up about 5.4 percent of the population by 2024.
Life is full of hope and promise after cancer treatment. Some cancer survivors with whom I have spoken are actually healthier after their cancer diagnosis than their friends who have not had a cancer diagnosis. How can that be? Cancer survivors learned in a crisis how important lifestyle choices—avoiding tobacco, smart eating, and keeping active—are in the big picture of living a long, healthy life. Yet, your health after cancer will still encounter the usual challenges for your age, gender, ethnic group and lifestyle as you age. What does that mean for your golden years when you are living with cancer or have already completed your treatments? The secret is keeping in touch with your medical team both old and new. Follow these strategies for healthy ageing:
Activate your Survivorship Care Plan.
At the completion of cancer treatment, you and your oncology healthcare team will develop a Survivorship Care Plan, as recommended by the American Society of Clinical Oncology. It’s a written document that you along with your healthcare and support teams will put into action. In addition to oncology follow-ups, you will need to update your primary care physician on your plan as he or she may not have your updated medical history. Both your oncologist and primary care physician will keep you on track for cancer screenings, symptom management, stress assessments, medical monitoring, and other appropriate health screenings for your age. Many cancer survivors experience other health concerns as they age, such as hypertension, diabetes, vision challenges, and kidney disease. These chronic conditions can be managed with your healthcare team so your life can be full of options and productivity.
Engage with your appointments.
Even though non-cancer-related doctors’ appointments may not seem as critical as your oncology visits, they actually are very important. Your healthcare team can help you reduce your risk of cancer recurrence and chronic disease side effects later in life. Stay involved! Know your numbers. What are your target levels for blood sugar, cholesterol, blood pressure, and waist circumference?
Sustain a healthy body size.
Body size and shape are terms similar to body weight. Being overweight for your height is a risk factor for cancer recurrence and a significant risk factor for a second cancer diagnosis. Being overweight puts you at higher risk for colorectal, gallbladder, kidney, and esophageal cancer, just to name a few. Many observational studies have shown that people who have a lower rate of weight gain during adulthood have a lower risk of colon, breast (after menopause), and endometrial cancers. To prevent chronic diseases like diabetes and high-blood pressure, aim for a 5% weight loss if you are overweight. Ask your doctor what a healthy size (waist measurement), body mass index (BMI), or body weight is for you.
Pick a plant-based food style.
Most nutritional studies regarding cancer risk suggest eating a plant-based diet. In fact, the American Institute of Cancer Research (AICR) recommends that 2/3 of your plate at meals be plants such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and beans. For extra measure, choose a variety of colorful plants to get the most out of protective “phytochemicals” found in foods such as leafy greens, tomatoes, strawberries, blueberries, carrots, and cantaloupe. The remaining 1/3 of your plate could be fish, poultry, lean red meat, cheese, or other animal products if you choose. Try to go meatless several times each week. Choose plant oils in place of saturated fats. Avoid alcohol. You don’t have to give up your favorite foods; your overall pattern of eating is what is most influential. Pick fresh, colorful, and the least processed foods you can to include in your weekly meals.
Move for at least 150 minutes per week.
Sixty percent of our body was built for movement. Consider your skeleton, muscle structure, joints, nervous and energy systems---they are all designed to keep you in motion, being active and upright, much of your waking hours. Use this biological feature to your advantage. Staying in motion for every hour of your day may sound difficult. Consider standing for 5 minutes every hour instead of non-stop sitting or lounging. That’s a great start! Talk with your physician to see if activities like walking, swimming, cycling, or Tai Chai are safe for you and at what intensity level.
Sharpen your mind.
You only have one brain. It makes up only 2% of your body weight, but it uses 20% of the total oxygen in your body. Every time you think about a memory or create a new thought, a new connection is created in your brain. New connections make for a more lively brain function. Consider your brain like a strong muscle, strengthening with mental stimulation and cognitive challenges like problem solving, learning new information, and memory games. Exercise your brain to keep it young! Stay around positive people—your thoughts are a combination of the 5 people with whom you spend the most time. Find the best parts in each day and smile about those memories. “Clean up” your brain by exercising, not smoking, avoiding alcohol, making smart food choices, and sleeping well. All these factors help support a sharp mind. Some recent studies with Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s diseases have found that 30 to 40 minutes riding a bike or walking 3 to 5 days weekly may delay disease progression and support better brain function or be neuro-protective.
Need more suggestions? Download PearlPoint’s free Survivorship Handbook for everything you need to know for life after cancer.