Staying Healthy As A Cancer Survivor
- TODAY anchor and cancer survivor Al Roker recently shared that a low-carb diet and a regular walking helped him lose “about 45 pounds” in the last “several months.”
- Roker announced he was diagnosed with prostate cancer in March 2020. Since undergoing treatment, he’s been given consistent ‘all-clears,’ but he’ll be doing lifelong testing to make sure the cancer does not return.
- Studies have shown that diet can influence cancer prevention. Heavy alcohol consumption and obesity have been linked to a number of cancers, so it’s a good idea to exercise and maintain a diet that incorporates more fruits and vegetables, whole grains and lean proteins while decreasing sodium and added sugar intake.
- Studies have shown that maintaining an active lifestyle can be helpful for cancer prevention, for patients undergoing chemotherapy and other treatments, and for survivors recovering from treatment.
- Prostate cancer, the most common form of cancer in men, can sometimes be misdiagnosed based on results from a PSA test. Still, our experts maintain that the PSA tests are helpful, and you should talk with your doctor about your own risks for the cancer and screening options.
Earlier this week, Roker said eating fewer carbohydrates and walking daily along with some weight training have been key to his latest weight loss journey.Read More
And Roker doesn’t just ‘talk the talk,’ he has truly ‘walked the walk’ by spearheading TODAY‘s 30-day walking challenge to encourage people to get active this summer. And last month, he even power-walked a 13.1-mile half marathon in New York City.
“It isn’t setting any land speed records, but it was faster than any of my training walks,” he told TODAY at the time. “There is a sense of accomplishment. It’s like, ‘Wow, this is something 22,000 people did. Not everybody can do it.’ And you do feel like, ‘Oh, OK, I did that!’”
Al Roker’s Prostate Cancer Battle
After almost delaying a doctor’s appointment because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Roker was diagnosed with an aggressive type of prostate cancer. He shared the news of his diagnosis on the TODAY show in March 2020 and explained that he would be having surgery.
“My first reaction was, ‘I just want this out. I don’t want to do radiation,’” Roker previously told SurvivorNet of the prostate cancer that was growing inside his body. “At the end of the day, I thought, ‘surgery first,’ then I thought, ‘no, maybe radiation,’ then I went back and (said), ‘no, surgery.’ That was that. Once I make a decision, I don’t really second guess it.”
RELATED: ‘I Just Want This Out’: TODAY Anchor & Prostate Cancer Survivor Al Roker, 67, Tells SurvivorNet About His Decision to Have Surgery, the Risk for Black Men & that His Sexual Function After Cancer is ‘Working Fine’
His procedure took place in November 2020 and resulted in the removal of his prostate and some surrounding tissue and lymph nodes. This type of surgery – a radical prostatectomy – is known to effect a man’s sexual function since it requires removing the seminal vesicles.
“There really was no pain,” Roker said on how he felt post-operation. “The biggest issue, obviously, is sexual function, and there’s treatment for that. I’m happy to say everything’s working fine.”
The biggest issue for Roker actually came during surgical recovery.
“To be honest, the hardest part really — there’s a little incontinence (loss of bladder control) to begin with that eventually goes away to me,” he said. “The hardest part was that initial week after surgery where you’re wearing a catheter (a soft tube that drains urine from the bladder). But even that was not onerous, it’s just a little inconvenient, but you know that it’s temporary.”
Since then, Roker has been given consistent ‘all-clears,’ though he’ll be doing lifelong testing to make sure the cancer does not return.
Diet and Exercise Considerations for Cancer Survivors
It’s never a bad idea to try to lead a healthy lifestyle – and we’re happy Al Roker is doing so himself and encouraging others to do the same. But what should you know about maintaining good health and cancer risk? We’ve got you covered below.
Thinking about Diet
Healthy diet recommendations for cancer-related concerns can differ depending upon who you ask.
Studies have shown that diet can influence cancer prevention. Heavy alcohol consumption and obesity have been linked to a number of cancers, so it’s a good idea to exercise and maintain a diet that incorporates more fruits and vegetables, whole grains and lean proteins while decreasing sodium and added sugar intake.
Sugar, specifically, has attracted a lot of attention for a possible role in cancer, but overwhelming medical evidence finds that sugar does not cause cancer. SurvivorNet has previously found that credible sources such as Memorial Sloan-Kettering, M.D. Anderson Cancer Center and the Mayo Clinic all came to that same conclusion as well.
But there is still some debate on the subject. Dr. Brian Berman, director of the center for integrative medicine
at the University of Maryland, believes sugar does, in fact, fuel cancer.
Below we have shared his views not because it is of equal scientific weight to the sources cited above, but rather because it is a view that does get a lot of attention and press.
There’s also articles that often get published saying ‘this fruit’ or ‘that vegetable’ is the magical cure to cancer. Unfortunately, that’s not necessarily the case.
Leading oncologists say it is always hard to use studies of a single food to make sweeping generalizations about their impact on health. There are many factors that can determine health risk and it is difficult, and perhaps impossible, to say that a single food such as mushrooms can have a direct impact on cancer risk. Many other factors such as overall diet, environmental risk, genetics and exercise play a role.
Exercising as a Cancer Survivor
According to the National Cancer Institute, physical activity is beneficial for cancer survivors. The NCI cited findings from a report of the 2018 American College of Sports Medicine International Multidisciplinary Roundtable on physical activity and cancer prevention and control in saying that exercise is generally good for cancer survivors. The roundtable also found:
- Strong evidence that moderate-intensity aerobic training and/or resistance exercise during and after cancer treatment can reduce anxiety, depressive symptoms and fatigue and improve health-related quality of life and physical function.
- Strong evidence that exercise training is safe in persons who have or might develop breast-cancer-related lymphedema.
- Some evidence that exercise is beneficial for bone health and sleep quality.
- Insufficient evidence that physical activity can help prevent cardiotoxicity or chemotherapy-induced peripheral neuropathy or improve cognitive function, falls, nausea, pain, sexual function or treatment tolerance.
Still, it’s important to note that other experts like Dr. Sairah Ahmed, associate professor in the Division of Cancer Medicine at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, say being in good shape during your cancer battle is very beneficial.
In fact, studies suggest that physical activity can be a powerful antidote for side effects of cancer treatment like “chemo brain” and, according to Dr. Ahmed, the more physically fit you are during cancer treatment, the less side effects you’ll have and the faster you’ll get back to your normal quality of life.
“In terms of cancer, oftentimes patients feel that they don’t have any control over any part of their life, and that’s not true,” Ahmed told SurvivorNet in an earlier interview. “Diet, exercise, and stress control are extremely important when going through cancer therapy, as well as once you’re done treating your cancer and trying to get back to the rest of your life.”
And Dr. Ken Miller, the director of outpatient oncology at the University of Maryland Greenebaum Cancer Center, recommends these four things for cancer survivors to do to try and avoid another cancer diagnosis:
- Exercise at least two hours a week – walking counts
- Eat a low-fat diet
- Eat a colorful diet with lots of fruits and vegetables – doctors recommend two to three cups a day
- Maintain a healthy weight
Understanding Al Roker’s Cancer: Prostate Cancer
Prostate cancer is the most common cancer in American men – except for skin cancers. About one in eight men will be diagnosed with prostate cancer during his lifetime. The disease begins in the walnut-shaped prostate gland located between the rectum and bladder. This gland produces the fluid that nourishes sperm.
Symptoms of the disease are inconsistent and hard to pinpoint.
“Prostate cancer is a very odd disease in that it doesn’t have a particular symptom,” Dr. Edwin Posadas, director of translational oncology and the medical director of the Urologic Oncology Program at Cedars-Sinai, explained.
But changes in urinary function like urinating more or less often or waking up at night to go more than usual could be a sign of the disease. However, it’s important to note that these potential symptoms could also could be caused by a urinary tract infection or even an enlargement of the prostate gland (which is not cancer).
Doctors that have spoken with SurvivorNet shared a hopeful outlook when considering a prostate cancer diagnosis because there are many treatment options, and there’s been significant treatment progress over the past decade. Surgical and radiation options, for example, have made improvements in reducing side effects of treatment while still providing excellent cure rates. Even for men with an advanced-stage diagnosis, many new options exist to treat prostate cancer and help them maintain an excellent quality of life.
Prostate Cancer Screening
In the United States, many prostate cancer cases are caught with screening examinations. Screening guidelines depend on your risk for the disease. Age, race/ethnicity, geography, family history and gene changes are the main risk factors for prostate cancer. You should talk with your doctor regardless, but here are some things to consider when gauging your risk for the disease:
- Men younger than 40 are less likely to get prostate cancer, but age-related risk quickly rises after age 50. Approximately six of ten cases of prostate cancer are found in men older than 65.
- Prostate cancer develops more often in African-American men and in Caribbean men of African ancestry than in men of other races, and these men tend to develop the disease at a younger age.
- Prostate cancer is most common in North America, northwestern Europe, Australia and on Caribbean islands. It is less common in Asia, Africa, Central America and South America. The reasons for this risk factor are unclear, but more intensive screening and lifestyle differences like diet might be contributing factors.
- Most prostate cancers occur in men without a family history of the disease, but it’s still important to look at your family history because prostate cancer does seem to run in some families. Having a father or brother with prostate cancer, for instance, more than doubles a man’s risk of developing the disease with a higher risk for men with a brother with prostate cancer than those with a father who have it. The risk is also especially high if a man has several affected relatives that developed the cancer at a younger age.
- Inherited gene changes, or mutations, like that of the BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes can also elevate risk, but this probably accounts for a small percentage of overall cases.
It’s not clear if the benefits of prostate cancer screening outweigh the risks for most men. Nevertheless, screening can be life-saving, and it’s important to at least discuss the pros and cons of screening and your risk factors for the disease with your doctor.
Prostate cancer screening methods look for possible signs of the disease, but they can’t determine for sure if you have cancer. The only way to know for sure if the patient has prostate cancer is with a prostate biopsy – a procedure in which small samples of the prostate are removed and examined under a microscope. But generally speaking, screening for prostate cancer involves a PSA (prostate-specific antigen) test and a digital rectal exam to feel the prostate gland.
“It’s slightly uncomfortable but painless, and takes less than 30 seconds,” Dr. Posadas said of these methods. “The amount of information that is gained from that is tremendous, and it can be a life-and-death type decision that is made.”
But it’s important to note that the PSA test is not perfect. The prostate-specific antigen is a protein secreted by the prostate gland. Men have a small amount of PSA in their blood all the time, but large amounts can be a sign of cancer because when cancer cells grow, PSA spills into the blood.
An elevated PSA test, however, does not always mean you have prostate cancer. It can simply reflect that your prostate is enlarged – which is common – or it could signal an infection or inflammation. Because of this, the PSA test is controversial since high levels may lead to over-treatment in men who are more likely to die from something else. Regardless, our experts maintain that the PSA tests are helpful, and you should talk with your doctor about your own risks for the cancer and screening options.