Eating Right and Being Active after Childhood Cancer


The effects of childhood cancer on nutrition and physical activity are different for everyone. Some survivors may have a hard time gaining weight and others may gain too much weight. How able you are to be physically active varies, too. Nonetheless, making good choices about what you eat and how often you are active has many benefits.

Why Bother Eating Right and Being Physically Active?

Eating right and getting regular exercise is good for your mind and body. The benefits include:

  • Promoting healing of tissues and organs damaged by cancer and its treatment
  • Building strength and endurance
  • Reducing risk for certain cancers in adulthood and other diseases
  • Lowering stress and providing a feeling of well-being

How Do I Eat Right?

A healthy diet is one that is made up mostly of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and fat-free or low-fat milk and milk products. It includes lean meats, poultry, fish, beans, eggs, and nuts, too. It is also low in saturated fats, trans fats, cholesterol, salt, and added sugars.

Here are some tips for eating a healthy diet:

  • Choose a variety of foods from all the food groups. The SuperTracker at www.choosemyplate.gov can help you create a personalize nutrition plan.
  • Make half your plate fruits and veggies.
  • Choose foods and drinks with little or no added sugars.
  • Make at least half your grains whole grains.
  • Eat fewer foods that are high in solid fats (such as beef fat, butter, and shortening).
  • Switch to low-fat or skim milk.
  • Avoid salt-cured, smoked, charbroiled, and pickled foods.
  • Limit alcoholic drinks to 1 a day for women and 2 a day for men.

If you need to lose weight, talk with your health care team and a nutritionist. They can help you make a plan that works for you. Before starting a weight loss plan, ask yourself these questions to make sure it suits you:

  • Do you have a realistic, achievable weight loss goal?
  • Does your plan include foods that you will enjoy eating for the rest of your life, not just for a few weeks or months?
  • Does your plan include a variety of foods?
  • Does your supermarket carry the foods on your plan?
  • Does you plan fit into your lifestyle, daily schedule, and budget?
  • Does your plan include lifestyle changes that will help you maintain your weight loss?

Also, speak to your doctor before taking any herbal or dietary supplements. Not all of them are truly healthy.

How Much Exercise Do I Need?

The American Cancer Society recommends having a physically active lifestyle. This means that adults should be physically active for at least 30 minutes per day on five or more days of the week, doing activities such as brisk walking, riding a bike, and gardening. Children and adolescents should be active for at least 60 minutes per day at least five days per week, doing activities such as running, hopping, dancing, and swimming.

Short bursts of activity that are at least 10 minutes long count toward your physical activity goal. Here are some ways to become more active without going to the gym:

  • Take the stairs instead of the elevator.
  • Ride a bike to work or when running errands.
  • Join a sports team.
  • Plant a garden, wash your car, mow the lawn, paint furniture, or clean out the garage.
  • Watch TV or read the newspaper while on a stationary bike or treadmill.
  • Go for a family hike or bike ride instead of going out to eat or to a movie.

How Do I Get Started Being Active?

First you must decide what type of activity you want to do. When choosing an exercise plan, ask yourself these questions:

  • Are your goals realistic given your current strength and endurance?
  • Is the activity safe for you?
  • Does the plan fit your lifestyle and schedule?
  • Does the activity need special equipment or protective gear? Will your budget cover the expenses?
  • Do you need to make changes in the sport or activity based on a special need?
  • Do you enjoy the sport or activity?

Here are some tips to get you going once you have an activity in mind:

  • Start slow. Don’t try activities that are too hard or put you at risk for muscle strain.
  • When you exercise, begin with a warm-up and end with a cool-down.
  • Exercise until you are tired, but not in pain.
  • Choose the muscles that you want to build and do exercises that work them.
  • Alternate exercises to work muscles in different parts of your body.
  • Use the right equipment and shoes to help avoid getting hurt.
  • Slowly increase your workout duration and intensity, by no more than 10 percent per week.

What If I Have Special Needs?

Survivors with special needs can take part in most activities with the help of a physical or occupational therapist to adapt them. A social worker may be able to help find insurance coverage or other resources for special equipment. Also, you might find exercise programs for people with special needs at your healthcare center or in your community. For more information on physical activity and disability, visit the National Center on Physical Activity and Disability’s website at www.ncpad.org.

What Should I Talk to My Doctor About?

Talk with your doctor before you start an exercise plan or take part in a new sport or recreational activity. Based on your medical history, your doctor can let you know which activities you can safely do and which you should avoid.

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