Cancer survivors have many healthy choices

The importance of a healthy lifestyle following a cancer diagnosis is just as significant as its role in minimising cancer risk.

Flinders cancer experts warned this message for better patient outcomes is often lost or toned down at critical times in a patient’s cancer journey.

More than 1 million Australians live with cancer at any one time, and the five-year survival rate from all cancers combined is 68% – an improvement of 50% since 1984 – so the role of a healthy lifestyle in maintaining quality of life and keeping other conditions at bay should be top of mind for doctors and cancer survivors.

“As we celebrate World Cancer Day (4 February 2019), it is worth reflecting on the new challenges in cancer care,” says Flinders University’s Professor Bogda Koczwara, who is also head of the Cancer Survivorship Research Group at the Flinders Centre for Innovation in Cancer, which is renowned for its integrated approach to cancer research.

“The good news is we are living longer with cancer and are more likely to be cured, but the bad news is we are not making the simple lifestyle changes that can vastly improve our outcomes.

“We know that if you have a healthy diet and lifestyle you are likely to cope better with treatment, have improved survival prospects, and fewer problems with the side effects of cancer treatment.”

Additionally, the key risk factors for many cancers – including smoking, obesity, inactivity, poor diet and excessive alcohol – are identical to those for many other chronic diseases and this is an increasing concern as survivors are living longer.

Professor Koczwara says it can be common for people who have prioritised a healthy lifestyle yet are presented with a cancer diagnosis, to feel their efforts were futile and lose the motivation to make healthy choices.

“Or often medical people may sympathise with the patient and suggest they have enough to deal with at the moment and that it’s okay to treat themselves, relax and rest on the couch. That is the gap and it’s an incorrect message.”

Professor Koczwara shared her research that supports the role of lifestyle in both cancer avoidance and treatment, covering risk factors and effective strategies to improve behaviours, at a free ‘BRAVE’ public lecture at Flinders University’s Victoria Square campus on 4 February.

A recording of the lecture is available on the University’s You Tube channel.

Some of the resources available to help cancer survivors look after their health included the Finding My Way Program — a free online resource developed at Flinders University and used by the Cancer Council in Australia and overseas — and the Healthy Living After Cancer telephone consultation program, which is also available through the Cancer Council.

An advocate for individuals taking control over their cancer risk and outcomes, Professor Koczwara is also passionate about the role of society and government in achieving healthy outcomes.

“It is much easier to maintain a healthy weight, for example, if healthy food is accessible and cheap,” she says.

“We have an individual responsibility but we also have a societal responsibility and that’s where community activites such as food coops, community gardens, community exercise events and policy decisions are important.

“It is not about getting people to pay big bucks for gym memberships, but rather facilitating healthy lifestyles that are simple, safe and affordable.”

  • 9.6 million people die from cancer every year.
  • At least one third of common cancers are preventable.
  • Cancer is the second-leading cause of death worldwide.
  • 70% of cancer deaths occur in low-to-middle income countries.
  • Up to 3.7 million lives could be saved each year by implementing resource appropriate strategies for prevention, early detection and treatment.
  • The total annual economic cost of cancer is estimated at US$1.16 trillion (#WorldCancerDay).
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College of Medicine and Public Health College of Nursing and Health Sciences