Cancer Prompts Healthier Lifestyle

But Older Patients & Men Less Likely to Make Changes After Diagnosis

From the WebMD Archives

March 7, 2003 -- A cancer diagnosis often sparks a flurry of lifestyle changes. Many people suddenly begin living healthier -- they eat better, get more exercise, take vitamins. Yet others don't make these positive changes, which could improve their quality of life, a new study shows.

In fact, all cancer patients need better counseling after diagnosis -- to help them put a more positive focus on their lives, and to help them sort through bad advice, writes lead researcher Ruth E. Patterson, PhD, RD, with the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle.

Her study appears in the March Journal of The American Dietetic Association.

A cancer diagnosis often leaves people with feelings of hopelessness and loss of control, Patterson writes. For many people, the diagnosis marks a dramatic change in lifestyle. They begin eating a healthier diet, getting more exercise. All this helps them regain their sense of personal control, she explains.

"Psychologically, it's quite a profound change," says Suzanne Miller, MD, director of psychosocial and behavioral medicine at Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia.

She's seen it in her own patients: "They switch from focusing on 'reducing disease' to 'promoting health.' It's a shift to something positive. And it's especially important after treatment ends, when the patient is left without anything to do. These healthy behaviors help answer that question of 'what now?'"

Patterson and colleagues interviewed 356 cancer patients -- 126 with breast cancer, 114 with prostate cancer, and 116 with colorectal cancer. Half of the patients were women; half had been diagnosed within the past year, while the rest were diagnosed at least two years prior.

Two-thirds reported making at least one health behavior change in the past year, reports Patterson. About 40% made dietary changes -- eating more fruits and vegetables; 20% began a new physical activity -- adding aerobic exercise; and almost 50% started taking dietary supplements -- taking multivitamins and/or vitamin E.

The vast majority of patients reported these efforts improved their quality of life, Patterson says. "It is important to note that patients overwhelmingly thought that these lifestyle changes improved their health and well-being," she writes.

Among the more controversial changes, some took vitamin C, garlic, or echinacea supplements. During treatment, antioxidants may interfere with chemotherapy or radiotherapy, Patterson says.

Another finding: Older people and men were less likely to make positive lifestyle changes.

Her study points to a critical need: All cancer patients need better information about diet, physical activity, and dietary supplements. They may be vulnerable to bad advice delivered with good intentions, says Patterson.

"Family, friends, media, and health-food stores may readily give advice, much of which is offered with a degree of certainty that is out of proportion with the evidence available," she writes.

Miller echoes the message: "Patients tend to rely on what they read on the web, and on what other patients tell them. [Doctors] could a do better job of counseling patients about what's known that they can do to promote health. We can help them make sense out of all the confusing information out there, help them make good decisions for themselves."

"Improvement in quality of life is very critical," Miller adds. "It's also clear that some people are better able to do make these changes than others. We need to target those people who won't likely make them -- involve them in this process of reframing their lives, giving their lives a more positive focus."

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SOURCES: Journal of The American Dietetic Association, March 2003.Suzanne Miller, MD, director of psychosocial and behavioral medicine at Fox Chase Cancer Center, Philadelphia.
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