5 Things That Can Help You Fight Cancer


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Undergoing cancer treatment can be draining, but physical activity can help increase energy, boost self-esteem, and improve quality of life.

Every day, researchers make progress in the fight against cancer in laboratories and clinical trials across the country, including at UT Southwestern. But for all these advances in medical science, it’s also clear that patients can have a clear impact on their treatment.

Muhammad Shaalan Beg, M.D., Medical Director for the Clinical Research Office and Co-Leader of GI Oncology at Simmons Cancer Center, frequently talks to his patients about diet and exercise in particular. As he conducts research and works with patients, he is also exploring ways that technology and data can help patients and researchers alike have greater impact.

1. Start Stepping.

For years, we’ve heard the advice to get 10,000 steps a day for good health. Undergoing cancer treatment can be draining, but physical activity can help increase energy, boost self-esteem, and improve quality of life.

“Physical activity is something people often neglect,” notes Dr. Beg, Assistant Professor of Internal Medicine. Wearable trackers like Fitbits or simple pedometers can be great for both motivation and awareness.

“Physicians don’t always do a good job of assessing how active their patients are,” he explains. “Patients might have a hard time expressing it, or they might under- or over-report their exercise — perhaps not even consciously. So it can take a lot of work to tease out how much activity someone is doing.”

Activity trackers have implications for researchers, too, as they can provide objective data and insights into the relationship between physical activity and cancer treatment, according to a recent study by researchers at Simmons Cancer Center. Evaluation of a patient’s functional status is a key part of clinical encounters and affects treatment decisions. Cancer patients often are older, and subtle differences in functional status can be particularly important in evaluating elderly patients. Adding objective data from physical activity monitors can sharpen oncologists’ assessments of their patients, the researchers said.

2. Opt for balanced nutrition rather than restrictive diets.

“One thing that routinely comes up is diet,” Dr. Beg notes. “Some people try to start limiting the foods they eat, thinking there’s a magic diet. But based on all the data we have, nothing beats a balanced diet.”

He acknowledges the stress around food, noting that food is important for strength and even pleasure.

“There are very few things that are pleasurable right now (during cancer treatment),” he says. “It’s OK to eat some ice cream.”

If you want to keep track of your diet, jot down your meals in a food journal or use an app like MyFitnessPal. Throughout the course of treatment, you might want to also note how you feel in order to gain some valuable insight into the impact of your diet.

3. Work with a dietitian.

A dietitian can help you find foods that work for you — whether that’s managing changes in taste or lack of appetite.

Plus, Dr. Beg sees opportunities to use data in patients’ electronic medical records and lab reports to identify those who might be at risk for cachexia, for example, which refers to an unintended loss of muscle mass. Then, high-risk patients could see a dietitian early to create a plan to reduce their risk for that atrophy. 

4. Manage information overload and other stressors.

Dr. Beg recommends only a couple of trusted websites to his patients. “Beyond that, the internet is a dark, dark place … you can get sucked into the fringes,” he says.

One way to manage stress and information overload is through mindfulness meditation. Apps like Headspace or 10% Happier can help guide you through the process.

5. Seek out social support.

Having a strong social support network also can be helpful for managing stress, Dr. Beg says. Loved ones can help patients and their families manage day-to-day activities and provide emotional support, too.

“Patients who come with a family member do much better than those coming by themselves,” Dr. Beg observes. “If a patient is always coming alone, I invite them to bring someone who can listen in.”

Consider using your phone and having a friend or family member on speakerphone, or use your phone to record parts of your appointment (be open with your doctor that you’re recording). In the stress of the moment, you might forget important information, so these tools can help. Dr. Beg adds that writing down your questions on paper or in the notes app of your phone can help as well.

If you’re struggling to find the support you need, explore in-person and online support groups. The level of conversation can vary, Dr. Beg says, but support is important, so explore the resources that work for you. 

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The Vanguard

Learn about the latest advances in cancer care, research, and technology with the new publication from UT Southwestern’s Simmons Cancer Center. 

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