Caring Currents

Exercise, Dietary Changes Help Cancer Survivors Stay Strong

Last updated: Nov 26, 2008

To those of us helping care for elderly family members or friends who've survived cancer, it can seem like they're never quite the same afterwards, even if they beat the cancer itself. Fatigue, weakness, and other side effects from cancer and subsequent treatment (not to mention prolonged inactivity after surgery) can make it hard for older folks to "bounce back" and return to their lives with the same vigor and resilience. This is a big issue when you're trying to help a cancer survivor remain independent as long as possible.

Experts offered encouraging news this week: An intervention program focused on improving diet and increasing exercise can make a big difference in the physical functioning of older cancer survivors. Of 641 cancer survivors followed by researchers at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center at the University of Texas, those that participated in a simple program of diet and exercise cut the amount of their physical decline in half compared with those who didn't participate. They also kept their weight lower and scored higher on fitness tests.

Particularly encouraging was news that the program didn't require the seniors involved to leave their homes or take any special classes. Researchers simply gave participants some printed materials with dietary and exercise guidelines, along with a pedometer and exercise bands. For the first three weeks, participants received a phone call checking in on their progress. Then the calls tapered off, first to every two weeks and then to once a month.

The researchers hope that such a simple program will be easy to replicate by hospitals when they discharge patients and by families concerned about older cancer survivors who wish to continue living at home.

While younger patients usually bounce back after cancer treatment, many older patients need a structured program to prevent weakness and decline, which can limit their ability to live independently, said behavioral science professor Wendy Demark-Wahnefried, who led the study. On average, those in her program increased their amount of exercise from 30 minutes per week to 45 minutes and showed improved lower body strength on physical tests.

Image by Flickr user ClaudiaM used under the Creative Commons Attribution License.