During treatment for stage 2 breast cancer, which ended seven and a half years ago, Karen Reynolds found it difficult and overwhelming to focus on creating a healthy lifestyle. But now as a cancer survivor, she said she finds it simple, empowering and even more important.
“During my treatment, I was so focused on healing that my experience with getting healthy and nutrition was overwhelming and complicated,” the now 59-year-old said in an interview with Heal ®.
“Now it has become much simpler.”
For many years, Reynolds had struggled with her weight and knew she had to make healthier changes to her lifestyle, but once she received her cancer diagnosis, it was all too much.
About two years ago, admid the COVID-19 pandemic, Reynolds had lost her job and decided it was time to take control of her health.
“The world (was) changing in so many unimaginable ways, and I felt like everything was so out of control. I knew the one thing I could control was me,” she recalled.
Reynolds made a promise to herself to come out of the pandemic better than how she went in. She joined a friend in her wellness journey, got herself a health coach and has since lost 35 pounds — understands how to keep it off — and improved her mental, physical and medical health along the way.
Some of the changes she made included prepping healthier meals, making healthier choices at the grocery store, adding more water, protein and vegetables to her diet, and eating less carbs and minimal sugar, essentially transforming her habits and relationship with food.
She began walking regularly versus just taking her dog out — now she can do anywhere from 2 to 3 miles a day of walking. And after she lost the first 15 pounds, she got an indoor bike, adding cycling to her routine, and is now adding resistance as a weekly activity.
Changes like these can benefit other survivors, as well. There have been multiple studies suggesting that walking can improve quality of life in cancer survivors, and eating the right foods may decrease the risk of developing a second cancer.
Dr. Ajaz M. Khan, medical oncologist and chair of the Department of Medical Oncology at the Cancer Treatment Centers of America in Chicago, discussed this further in an interview with Heal ®.
“There’s a significant amount of studies that have (demonstrated that) … leading a healthy lifestyle has shown survival benefit (and) a reduction in recurrence for patients who have already had treatment for their cancer,” he explained.
Not only can making a healthy lifestyle change improve a cancer survivor’s physical health, but it can also improve their mental health and quality of life.
Khan explained that during treatment and thereafter, cancer survivors experience a distress that can negatively effect their quality of life.
However, some recent studies have shown it can improve with a healthy diet and exercise routine.
A few days into making her own healthy choices, Reynolds felt that affect on her quality of life, which motivated her to continue the lifestyle. One aspect of her life that she saw an immediate improvement in was sleep.
She had experienced insomnia, as many cancer survivors do, for years after treatment. However, after just a few days of making healthy choices, she was falling asleep easier and faster, staying asleep through the night and not waking up groggy. She was also able to rid the midday fatigue she had been experiencing.
“Feeling rested led to a better disposition for me,” Reynolds explained. “I was less irritable — my family tells me — which also meant a better relationship with my mother as her caregiver.”
She has been caregiving for her 88-year-old mother for a few years now, and with the help of Reynolds’ meal changes, she has lost 20 pounds herself.
However, Khan noted, it is important to stay committed if a cancer survivor wants to see changes as Reynolds did.
“Particularly in some of the survivorship studies that have been done in breast, prostate and colon cancer, (we’ve seen) that patients who can walk up to 300 minutes in a week (have) shown significant benefits compared (with) those who can’t,” he said. “So, there is an activity level they must achieve to enjoy a greater quality of life in survivorship.”
Committing to Change
Although these changes are important to leading a healthy lifestyle after cancer, it can be hard. However, the results it can provide, such as better quality of life and reduced risk of recurrence, should fuel motivation, Khan noted.
“The first thing is acceptance of a new norm, which may not be what it was prior to receiving treatment,” he said. “The second thing is there’s still a heightened awareness of being empowered in terms of preventing their cancer from coming back.”
Reynolds is a testament to that. Once she started feeling better, making healthy choices became easier for her and she stayed motivated.
“A few days into making healthy choices and experiencing it consistently, I began to feel differently, which allowed that mindset to stay top of mind,” she explained. “Healthy habits have given me a sense of empowerment. Even routine activity is now second nature (rather than) a chore.”
As Reynolds said, starting the commitment was hard, just going to the grocery store for healthy options was overwhelming. But now getting in and out of the grocery store is a much simpler task, and meal prep is something she finds pleasant and easy — she’s “got it down to a science.”
Khan said that before making the commitment, it is important to talk with a doctor or expert in the field, because there are a lot of facts and myths out there regarding a cancer survivor’s health and wellness.
Although it’s a fact that physical activity and healthy eating can reduce risk of recurrence and improve quality of life, some of the myths he encounters with patients include the benefits of antioxidants, alkaline water and mega doses of vitamins. There isn’t enough literature to prove these work, according to Khan.
“Those all should be discussed with the provider before engaging with them,” he advised.
Reynolds added that it is not all about losing weight; it is about optimum health and a lifelong transformation impacting all areas of one’s life.
“When I think about optimum health, which was the goal for me, I think (about) favorable outcomes, maximizing performance in mind, body, spirit and finances — and all that comes together and impacts how (you experience) the world. Feeling healthy impacts how you show up every day,” she said.
She said a first step a cancer survivor should take is to decide what they want to improve, whether that’s reducing blood pressure, cholesterol, how clothes fit or just feeling all around better. And then find what path will help you accomplish and maintain your goal.
“Be gentle with yourself, because sometimes we get off track or fall short and miss the mark, but just be gentle. It’s a journey, not a race,” Reynolds said. “Getting healthy is liberating, and it’s empowering when you know how to sustain your goals.”
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