Thriving as a Survivor
- Maria Castro, 45, is a leukemia survivor. But her doctor admitted that she was more concerned about her weight than the cancer during her battle.
- She’s since lost 170 pounds and decided to commemorate her accomplishment by doing an activity she could not partake in just three years prior: indoor skydiving.
- Leukemia is a type of blood cancer. Symptoms vary depending on the type of leukemia, but general symptoms for the disease include: Fever or chills, persistent fatigue, weakness, frequent or severe infections, losing weight without trying, swollen lymph nodes, an enlarged liver or spleen, easy bleeding or bruising, recurrent nosebleeds, tiny red spots in your skin (petechiae), excessive sweating as well as bone pain or tenderness.
- 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.
Castro was diagnosed with leukemia in 2007. While taking oral chemotherapy medication, she “started packing on weight” and forgot to prioritize herself as a busy teacher and mother of two.Read More
Castro got to work the next day. With better nutritional habits, she lost her first 100 pounds within a year which then allowed to start exercising. Today, she’s down to 158 pounds.
“I feel great. I never want to stop,” Castro said. “My doctor told me that this is the best thing that I could have done for my life and for my health.
“She admitted to me, ‘I was more worried about the weight killing you than the leukemia killing you.'”
And just last month, Castro decided to commemorate her dramatic weight loss journey by returning to the indoor skydiving facility that denied her three years ago.
“I feel like this is the most appropriate way to celebrate everything I’ve been through,” she said of the experience. “It’s extremely emotional and cathartic for me because it’s my journey coming full circle.”
Leukemia is a blood cancer that develops when the body produces large quantities of abnormal white blood cells. These cells prevent the bone marrow from producing any other type of cell including red blood cells and platelets.
“One cell got really selfish and decided that it needed to take up all the resources of everybody else, and, in doing so, took up space and energy from the rest of the body,” Dr. Nina Shah, a hematologist at University of California San Francisco, explained.
In a more general sense, blood cancer means that your bone marrow is not functioning properly.
“And when your bone marrow doesn’t function correctly, it means that you can have something happen to you like anemia,” she said. “Or you can have low platelets, which makes it possible for you to bleed easily. Or your immune system is not functioning correctly.”
Symptoms of leukemia can vary depending on the type of leukemia. Common signs and symptoms of the disease include:
- Fever or chills
- Persistent fatigue, weakness
- Frequent or severe infections
- Losing weight without trying
- Swollen lymph nodes, enlarged liver or spleen
- Easy bleeding or bruising
- Recurrent nosebleeds
- Tiny red spots in your skin (petechiae)
- Excessive sweating, especially at night
- Bone pain or tenderness
These signs and symptoms are not exclusive to leukemia, but if you notice them or any other changes to your health you should see a doctor promptly.
Diet and Exercise Considerations for Cancer Survivors
It’s never a bad idea to try to lead a healthy lifestyle – and we’re happy Maria Castro is doing so herself 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