Nearly 14 million people in the United States have survived cancer, a number that has quadrupled in the past several decades and is expected to reach 18 million by 2022, according to the American Cancer Society (ACS). What's more, 15% of today's cancer survivors were first diagnosed 20 years ago or more, the National Cancer Institute says.
Fear of recurrence is perhaps the most common new reality for cancer survivors. "That's always in the back of their minds," says oncologist Carolyn D. Runowicz, MD, professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Florida International University's Herbert Wertheim College of Medicine, and an 18-year breast cancer survivor.
But you can cut your chances of cancer recurrence. ACS experts recommend (after quitting smoking) controlling your weight, eating nutritious foods, and getting enough exercise.
If you're overweight, shedding even a few pounds has health benefits. Extra weight puts you at risk for breast, esophagus, kidney, pancreas, and colorectal cancer, both for first-time diagnosis and recurrence, says Runowicz. Eat more fruits and vegetables, cut down on high-fat foods and empty calories, and watch portion sizes.
Many nutrition experts recommend a Mediterranean-style diet -- whole grains, nuts, fish, poultry, limited red meat, healthy fats like olive oils, and lots of produce (at least two and a half cups of vegetables and fruits each day). And, exercise goes hand in hand with a healthy weight. Studies show that stepping up physical activity decreases the risk of developing breast, colon, and endometrial cancer and may help prevent recurrence. All this takes discipline, but it's possible to take charge, Runowicz says.
Dealing with the Anxiety
"The fear of cancer recurrence can be crippling to some people," says Carolyn D. Runowicz, MD, who knows firsthand. At 41, she was diagnosed with breast cancer and went through chemotherapy at the same time she treated other women for cancer. How did she get on with her life after treatment and quell her fears? "I wrote a book," says Runowicz, co-author of To Be Alive: A Woman's Guide to a Full Life After Cancer.
"Writing a book was cathartic," says Runowicz. "I had a writer working with me, and she would say, ‘OK. Tell me about when you were diagnosed. How did you feel?' So I basically relived the entire experience. And when [the book] was done, the cancer was behind me."
Runowicz tells her patients they can do something similar. "Keep a diary, pour it out, and then hopefully it's behind you," she says. For those who can't do that, join a support group or get therapy. The American Cancer Society can help you find one.
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Carolyn Runowicz, MD, professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Florida International University's Herbert Wertheim College of Medicine; co-author, To Be Alive: A Woman's Guide to a Full Life After Cancer, Henry Holt: 1995.
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