National Cancer Survivor’s Day: 5 Ways to Keep Fighting in Remission

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From the moment my grandpa got his cancer diagnosis, my family had our eyes on a single prize: remission.

We were prepared for the countless doctor’s visits, the trips to the hospital, the nerve-wracking waiting room campouts, the grocery store runs, the dinner preps, the Grandma-care-days and anything else we needed to do.  Any and everything that we needed to do to help Grandpa “beat his cancer”, we were ready.

And Grandpa was ready.  He faced round after round of excruciating treatments like a soldier.  

Then, the day finally rolled around.  The doctor said those magic words, “The cancer is in remission.”

Now, my grandpa was not a loquacious man, nor a particularly excitable one.  He was always calm, cool, collected and quiet.  So, I wasn’t expecting a big reaction.  But when I heard the news and threw my arms around his neck in celebration, I wasn’t expecting no reaction.

I was blabbering something about “congratulations” and “being so excited” and “glad”.  When I finished celebrating, Grandpa just kind of shrugged and in an oh-look-it’s-raining-again tone said, “We’ll see if it sticks.”

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The Stress of Remission

Over the following months, I could tell those were the words running through Grandpa’s head a lot.  “Is it going to stick?”

That twinge, was that the cancer coming back?  This new headache?  Does that mean it’s back?  What about this strange twitch?  And then there were all the follow-up tests and checkups, each one reminding him that the cancer could come back, and convincing him it likely had.  

And all the worrying about the cancer coming back really, really stressed him out.  In fact, stress-wise, he seemed worse than he had during the treatments.

At first, this seemed really odd to me.  For quite a while, actually.  How could you be more stressed about not having cancer?  But, one day, years later, when I was working on finding healthy ways to deal with stress and anxiety from school, I struck upon the fact that I was (more often than not) more stressed about projects before they started than when I was working on them.  

The fear of stress was worse for me than the stress itself.

That thought came up and slapped me right upside the head the next time I heard Grandpa mention his cancer.

The fear of stress of another round of cancer treatments could be worse than dealing with those treatments head-on.  Waiting could be harder than fighting.

Ways to Fight in Remission

Now, I imagine there are as many reactions to a remission diagnosis as there are cancer patients who go into remission, but if you or a loved one have found hearing that R-word created the same kind of fears my grandpa dealt with, we’re here to give you ways to switch from waiting-mode back into fighting-mode.

Studies have linked certain behaviors — behaviors that are under your control — to a reduced risk of recurrence.  That means you don’t have to just sit idly around and wait to see if your cancer comes back.  You can fight!

Just like fighting during your treatments wasn’t a guarantee you would win, none of these lifestyle changes are fool-proof recurrence shields.  But they are tangible, real ways you can stack the odds in your favor as much as possible.

1. Exercise

exerciseStudy after study shows: being physically active can help stave off cancer recurrence.  

In fact, the most recent meta-analysis (a study that combines the data from lots of other studies) found that cancer patients who increased their physical activity after going into remission (compared to before their diagnosis) dropped their risk of recurrence and mortality by 39%.

How much exercise do you have to get to actually protect yourself?

It looks like it doesn’t really matter.  The data showed that any increase in exercise was helpful.  But, more was better.  So, patients who increased their exercise by a little bit (say, about an hour and a half of brisk walking more per week), had a 6% decreased risk.  Those who increased their exercise by triple that amount (so, 3 extra hours of brisk walking per week) dropped their risk by over 30%.

If you’re not feeling up to jumping into more exercise than you were doing before your diagnosis just, yet, that’s totally understandable!  Aim first to at least get back up to where you were, though, as quickly (and safely) as you can.  This is a seriously important first step because being less active in remission than before diagnosis was found to increase the risk of mortality by 72%.

Basically, the more active you can be, the better your odds of keeping cancer on the ropes for good!

2. Cut Back on Meat and Junk Food

junk foodIf you’ve given cancer the ol’ 1-2-punch, calling a timeout on meat and junk food can help ensure that your cancer stays down for the count.

Depending on the type of cancer, eating a western-style diet (rich in meat and junk food) has been found to increase the risk of the cancer coming back by about 185% to 200%.

Working on switching out meat for plant-based foods and processed junk foods for real whole foods can cut this risk down to size, helping stack the odds in your favor.

Related: The Truth about Meatless Diets According to Science

3. Drink Green Tea

green teaSipping some soothing green tea is another simple way you can help prevent your cancer from coming out of remission.  This is particularly true if you’ve survived breast cancer.

Multiple independent studies have found that drinking more green tea is linked to a much lower risk of breast cancer recurrence.  For example, this study found that women drinking more than 3 cups of green tea per day had a 57% lower risk of recurrence.  And this study found women who drank any green tea at all had a 46% lower risk of their cancer returning than women who drank no tea.

Those are some really big protective numbers for a really small tweak to your daily routine!

4. Get Enough Vitamin D

sunlight vitamin dWhen you hear “vitamin D”, you likely think about your bone health.  While it’s true that vitamin D is incredibly important for your bones, this essential nutrient has many other important health effects, as well!

One of these effects appears to be helping prevent cancer and cancer recurrence.

Studies show that cancer patients have a lower risk of cancer mortality with greater levels of vitamin D in their blood.  For example, studies estimate around a 50% decreased risk of colon cancer death in those with high vitamin D levels during and after treatment.  High vitamin D levels also appear to offer a 50% decrease in ovarian cancer recurrence and a 30% decrease in the risk of melanoma returning.

Healthy levels of vitamin D can be powerful allies in your cancer fight!  Work to make sure you’re getting enough, whether from sunlight, food or supplements (click here to learn more about the best way to get vitamin D!).

Learn More: The Truth About the Vitamin D Supplement Buzz 

5. Avoid Chronic Inflammation

chronic inflammationChronic, body-wide inflammation drives cancer growth, which is obviously bad news if you’re trying to stay in remission!  

You can help keep inflammation in your body low by avoiding things that trigger it.  

First and foremost on this list is cigarette smoke.  If you smoke, you should stop, asap!  If you don’t, keep an eye out for ways you can reduce your secondhand smoke exposure.

Another really important inflammatory trigger is poor gut health.  Having unhealthy bacteria in your gut can cause your immune system to go haywire on you, leading to chronic inflammation.  You can keep your gut bacteria healthy by eating lots of fiber-rich foods.

Finally, obesity is a powerful driver of chronic inflammation.  Work towards reaching and/or maintaining a healthy body weight to keep your levels of inflammation, and your risk of your cancer coming back, low.

Take Home Message

While being in cancer remission is a wonderful victory, the switch from fighting-mode to waiting-mode can be really hard mentally and emotionally.  Luckily, you don’t have to settle for waiting-mode.

There are several ways you can continue to fight your cancer, even while it’s gone, to help make sure it won’t come back.  These include getting lots of exercise, avoiding meat and junk food, drinking green tea daily, keeping your vitamin D levels high and avoiding sources of inflammation.

Have you or someone you love beat cancer?  Have you or they struggled with the transition to remission like my grandpa did?  Do you think these strategies will help you re-find the fighting spirit that helped you kick cancer’s butt?  

We’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences in the comment section below.

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