Cancer survivors often make healthy lifestyle changes after their cancer treatment, but a new study suggests many may not go far enough in adopting healthy habits.

Researchers found up to 60 percent of cancer survivors follow a healthier diet after diagnosis and treatment, yet less than half are eating the recommended five or more servings of fruits and vegetables per day.

The study also showed that about 70 percent of breast and prostate cancer survivors remain overweight or obese.

There are almost 10 million cancer survivors in the U.S., and that number is expected to grow thanks to improvements in cancer diagnosis and treatment. For example, only about 50% of people diagnosed with cancer in 1971 were expected to be alive after five years, compared with 64 percent of those diagnosed with cancer today.

Researchers say adopting healthy lifestyle changes is especially important for cancer survivors because they are at increased risk for second cancers as well as other diseases, such as osteoporosis, obesity, heart disease, and diabetes.

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A Healthier Life After Cancer?

In their study, researchers reviewed 100 studies on cancer survivors to examine the impact of cancer diagnosis and treatment on lifestyle and behavior changes. The results appear in the Aug. 20 issue of the Journal of Clinical Oncology.

Overall, they found that many cancer survivors adopt healthier behaviors, such as:

—30-60 percent eat a healthier diet.

—46-96 percent of smokers with tobacco-related cancers (lung, head, or neck) quit smoking.

—47-59 percent of those with head and neck cancers linked to alcohol use abstain from alcohol.

—70 percent engage in regular physical activity of 30 minutes of exercise a day at least five days a week.

However, the study showed that cancer survivors who were male, less educated, over age 65, or who live in urban areas were less likely to start or maintain healthy lifestyle changes.

The study also showed that only 25-42 percent of cancer survivors eat adequate amounts of fruits and vegetables.

Researchers also found that only 20 percent of oncologists (cancer doctors) provided guidance to their patients on adopting a healthier lifestyle due to time constraints, treatment or health concerns, and uncertainty about how the message would be received or affect their patient's health.

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'Teachable Moment' for Patient and Doctor

In an editorial that accompanies the study, Patricia A. Ganz, MD, of the Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center at the University of California, Los Angeles, says the diagnosis of cancer and transition to cancer survivor are "teachable moments" for oncologists to encourage their patients to adopt a healthier lifestyle.

"Cancer survivors are looking for important ways to prevent a recurrence of their cancer, and to enhance the quality and length of their lives," writes Ganz.

But Ganz says it's also a teachable moment for oncologists to focus more attention on this new posttreatment phase of cancer care.

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By Jennifer Warner, reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD

SOURCES: Demark-Wahnefried, W. Journal of Clinical Oncology, Aug. 20, 2005; vol 23. News release, America Society of Clinical Oncology.