Healthy diet and exercise may play key role in fighting cancer, say scientists

female fitness plank

Experts are suggesting that future cancer patients may be advised to consider a healthy diet and regular exercise as two more weapons in the battle against cancer - in addition to traditional treatments - amid global mounting evidence to that effect.

Researchers, who revealed their findings at the worlds’ largest cancer conference in Chicago, say the results from a series of trials provide “ground breaking” and “powerful” evidence of the benefits of a healthy body weight and regular exercise for cancer patients and may even work to improve outcomes for those fighting advanced cancers.

Vegetables Healthy Cooking Food

Lifestyle changes

Professor Melinda Irwin, Associate Director of Cancer Prevention at Yale Cancer Center says that diagnosis is the time to consider lifestyle changes. She says for those who are overweight: “After treatment, weight loss is the most powerful thing you can do. It’s the next best pill to treatment and it’s free and has no side effects.” Professor Irwin adds that while doctors should be careful about bringing up the potentially sensitive issue of diet and exercise with the newly-diagnosed, diagnosis “offers a window of opportunity, and diet and exercise can have a profound and powerful effect” against disease recurrence.

Fran Woodward, Executive Director of Policy at Macmillan Cancer Support describes these conversations as “important”. She says: “Asking a person with cancer about their lifestyle habits when they have just been diagnosed can be challenging and must be done sensitively. However, this is an issue too important to tiptoe around.”

Research, led by Dr Irwin, into the effects of regular walking to the outcomes of 5,000 breast cancer patients found that three hours of brisk walking each week may be linked to a fall in mortality of as much as 46% - although as yet this observational link cannot be proven.

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Ovarian cancer trial

A possible link between exercise and improved outcomes has also been observed in a separate six-month trial involving 144 ovarian cancer patients, around half of which were advanced cases. Some of the women were enrolled on an exercise programme, which included at least 150 minutes of aerobic exercise each week for a period of six months. The research team observed what they describe as “profound” changes in biomarkers, a key marker of disease progression, including a significant drop in leptin – a hormone associated with cancer, as well as a decrease in IGF-1 – a natural human growth hormone which is known to help cancer spread. Dr Irwin describes the results as “ground breaking”. She says: “These were women with late-stage ovarian cancer. They were able to exercise and willing to.”

Breast cancer – diet and exercise trial

The findings have been revealed amid reports of the launch later this summer of a randomised controlled trial to monitor the impact of diet and exercise on the health of 3,200 American and Canadian women fighting breast cancer. If proven beneficial, exercise regimes may in future be prescribed to patients alongside traditional treatment methods.

See our previous Live Healthy article for three quick tips to increase your walking activity.


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