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Harvard Commentaries
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Reviewed by the Faculty of Harvard Medical School

Food for Thought Food for Thought

Losing Weight Helps Promote
Cancer Survivorship

October 23, 2014

By Stacy Kennedy, M.P.H., R.D., L.D.N.
Brigham and Women's Hospital

If you're one of over 10 million cancer survivors living in the United States, maintaining a healthy weight is vitally important.

The Obesity-Cancer Connection

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 65% of American adults are overweight or obese. The prevalence of obesity among American children has more than doubled in the past thirty years.

Overweight is also associated with increased risk for colorectal, post-menopausal breast, pancreatic, kidney and esophageal cancers. Excess body weight accounts for up to 20% of all cancer-related deaths each year.

Carrying extra pounds, especially in your abdomen, can also inhibit the cancer patient's response to treatment. For women receiving treatment for early-stage breast cancer, gaining more than 13 pounds increases her risk of breast cancer returning by one and a half times.

Obesity and weight gain increase a man's risk of prostate cancer recurrence, death and the cancer spreading to other parts of the body (metastases).

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How To Improve Cancer Survivorship

It is now well-established that a healthy, plant-based diet, physical activity and weight control help decrease cancer risk.

But one of the hottest areas in cancer research right now is the connection with health-promoting behaviors and improved cancer survivorship. Cancer survivors can help cancer-proof their bodies by managing their weight in the healthiest way possible. The same way of eating that will help you lose weight in a healthy manner is the same way of eating that will help you improve your immune function and promote anti-cancer activity in your body. Here's how:

  1. Eat a plant-based diet. Plant-based foods include a wide variety of delicious foods, such as fruits and vegetables; whole grains like wheat, oats, barley, quinoa; nuts and seeds; tea; spices like tumeric, ginger, garlic, cilantro and basil; soy foods. You don't have to become a vegetarian to include more plant foods at every meal and snack.
  2. Be physically active every day. You don't need to train for a marathon, join a gym or even "exercise." Physical activity includes just moving around more in your day. You can do this in a variety ways throughout the day and in small time increments:
    • Park farther away, walk to nearby destinations, get off public transportation one stop earlier, take the stairs for even one flight, walk down extra aisles or lengths of shopping malls and grocery stores


    • Take one 30- minute or two 15- minute walks. In separate studies, walking three to five hours a week helped reduce breast cancer recurrence by 40% and walking 6 hours a week at a moderate pace reduced colon cancer survivors risk of recurrence by 50%.


    • Try activities, such as Qi Gong and yoga. They help improve quality of life, reduce fatigue, promote recovery and strengthen the mind and body.


  3. Get more good-quality sleep. Sleep disturbance is a very common side effect of cancer diagnosis and treatment and contributes significantly to fatigue. Research shows that sleep loss can elevate appetite and hunger hormones, especially for high calorie and high sugar foods. Sleep loss also impairs nutritional metabolism and promotes insulin resistance, diabetes and high cholesterol. Lack of sleep and poor quality sleep increase a person's chances of gaining weight.
    • Avoid watching TV, reading or eating in bed.


    • Don't go to bed until you are feeling tired.


    • Set a schedule for waking up around the same time everyday and limit daytime naps.


    • After 15 minutes of tossing and turning, get out of bed and try a relaxing activity. Be careful not to do anything stimulating such as watching TV. Relaxing activities, such as deep breathing exercises, mindfulness meditation or listening to a guided imagery CD may help get your body more ready to fall asleep.


  4. Integrate mindfulness. New and exciting research is teaching us that how we eat is as important as what we eat. Distractions, such as driving, typing, reading, watching TV and even walking while we eat cause us to eat more food, eat more quickly and actually reduce the amount of healthy nutrients we absorb from our meals.
    • Taking a moment to sit up straight and breathe deeply before, during and after a meal can help slow things down.


    • Eating slowly, in a relaxed environment with minimal distractions, is another way to help promote health, wellness and weight loss.


  5. Address emotional eating. Learning you have cancer and going through treatment can dramatically affect a person's life. Cancer can be isolating and depression affects up to 38% of cancer patients. To cope, many people turn to food. It is natural to want to cope the best way you know how even though you may know it's not good for you. The best way to help deal with emotional eating is to work with a health psychologist who specializes in cancer.

For more information on diet and cancer please visit

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Stacy Kennedy, M.P.H., R.D., L.D.N. is senior clinical dietitian at Dana-Farber Cancer Care/Brigham and Women's Hospital and works in collaboration with the Zakim Center for Integrated Therapies of Dana Farber. She completed her dietetic internship at Massachusetts General Hospital and received her Master of Public Health in Nutrition from the University of North Carolina and her bachelor's degree from Indiana University. Stacy is certified through the American College of Sports Medicine and conducts educational seminars on nutrition, exercise, weight management and wellness in Boston and throughout New England.

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