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While certain habits are known to increase a person’s risk of developing cancer, little information has been available about the effect of lifestyle after cancer diagnosis—until recently. Mounting research is showing that diet, exercise and other lifestyle factors can make a difference in the chance of cancer survival and recurrence after cancer develops.
“We are seeing that the choices people make can influence results,” said Jeffrey Meyerhardt, MD, director of clinical trials in the Center for Gastrointestinal Oncology at the Dana-Farber/Brigham and Women’s Cancer Center.
Studies led by Meyerhardt have found that rates of colon cancer recurrence are lower in people who maintain a healthy diet, exercise and take aspirin. Conversely, a diet high in red meat, refined grains (such as white bread) and sugary desserts may increase the risk of colon cancer recurrence.
Research has found that women who are physically active after breast cancer diagnosis have a 30 to 50 percent lower risk of breast cancer recurrence, breast cancer death and overall death compared with sedentary individuals.
A medical oncologist and researcher in the Center for Breast Oncology, Jennifer Ligibel, MD, has explored processes linking cancer and exercise as well as ways to motivate sedentary cancer survivors to begin exercising.
“While the reason for this effect is not fully understood, scientists believe at least in part that these lifestyle changes impact insulin levels and factors that can drive cancers to grow and spread,” said Ligibel.
Meyerhardt and Ligibel are enrolling patients in a study testing the effects of exercise and/or an insulin-reducing medication used for diabetes after completion of treatment for stage I, II or III colon or rectal cancer.
They are also studying the effects of exercise and a mind-body intervention on certain levels in breast cancer cells in patients newly diagnosed with breast cancer. A separate trial is exploring the impact of exercise on indicators of disease in normal breast tissue among women at risk of developing the disease.
“The bottom line is that what you do on a day-to-day basis can make a difference,” said Ligibel.