Healthy Living for Cancer Survivorship

Cancer remains to be the second leading cause of death in the United States. However, as cancer survivorship increases, there is more research being done to help these individuals live fulfilling lives. A balanced diet with physical activity is key to healthy survivorship. By focusing on one goal at a time, slowly integrating healthy behaviors will result in a nourishing life and wholesome survivorship.

In 2010, the USDA created MyPlate to replace the food pyramid as part of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. While this replacement for the outdated carb-heavy food pyramid is a major improvement, recommendations for people affected by cancer must still be individualized to your specific needs.

The American Institute of Cancer Research (AICR) created The New American Plate, a scientifically sound eating philosophy that lets you enjoy your meals while emphasizing foods that promote health to reduce your risk for cancer and other chronic diseases. Healthy living is paramount for individuals touched by cancer because healthy eating fuels the body with nutrients that people need to heal, grow, and thrive.

Both AICR and the American Cancer Society (ACS) recommend that cancer patients get frequent physical activity and eat a balanced diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains with limited meat and alcohol consumption. These guidelines focus on getting nutrients directly from foods rather than from supplements. Additionally, cancer survivors are advised to achieve and maintain a healthy weight. The Academy for Nutrition and Dietetics has shown that excess body weight has been found to result in higher mortality risks in individuals with esophagus, breast, colon, and rectum, liver, prostate, pancreas, and gallbladder cancers.

What does the plate look like?

AICR’s New American Plate designates two-thirds of the plate as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes (beans) with the other third of the plate as animal protein. In other words, the diet should be highly focused on plant sources rather than animal sources.

fruits, vegetables, milk, groceries

Fruits, Vegetables, Whole Grains, Legumes, & Nuts

The new recommendation is to eat at least five servings of non-starchy vegetables and fruits per day. Fruits and vegetables contain phytonutrients, or phytochemicals, which are health-protecting agents. Some examples of phytonutrients are carotenoids, lycopene, glucosinolates, and phytosterols. These phytonutrients in fruits and vegetables account for the different colors in these foods, so creating a colorful plate optimizes the number of phytonutrients consumed in the diet

Whole grains are an important component of the plate, as opposed to processed refined grains. Whole grains contain all parts of the grain seed as well as naturally occurring B vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Some examples of whole grains include quinoa, brown rice, barley, farro, and millet. When shopping for groceries, whole grains can be identified by looking at the ingredients. A whole-grain product will have “whole-wheat,” “whole-oat,” “stone-ground,” “whole-ground” as the first ingredient on the label.

Additionally, the U.S.-based Whole Grain Council provides stamps to member companies to let customers know how much of their product contains whole grains. Fiber is also a key component in whole grains because it helps to regulate the stool and provides fuel for the microorganisms that live in our gut. This helps maintain a healthy gut and acts as a protective agent against cancer cells.

Animal Protein

These include poultry, fish, lean meats, and low-fat dairy. The type of protein that should be limited to 18 ounces per week is red meats such as beef, pork, and lamb. Cancer survivors are more susceptible to heart disease, and consuming high amounts of red meat increases the risk of heart disease. We at CFYL encourage all our readers to try and aim for several meatless meals throughout the week substituting beans, soy, and nuts for the protein source. Including plant-based proteins in a meal will help increase daily fiber intake as well as provide healthy sources of protein in the diet.

Physical Activity

Although fatigue is often a common side effect for cancer treatments that can linger into survivorship, increasing physical activity has shown to increase energy levels and actually reduce fatigue. Also, physical activity can help maintain bone health as well as muscle strength and maintain body weight. According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, adults should get 30 minutes of moderate activity per day, such as brisk walking, and then increase to 60 minutes of moderate activity or 30 minutes of vigorous activity daily.

One study of breast cancer patients even showed that consumption of five servings of fruits and vegetables combined with 30 minutes of walking 6 days a week had a 50% decrease in mortality after 7 years. This study concluded that fruit and vegetable consumption and exercise are an unbeatable combination for survivorship!



Water is extremely important for health as all cells need water to function properly, regulate our body temperature and act as a cushion for our internal organs and protect our brains from sudden impacts. Sugary beverages such as sodas should be avoided; even fruit juices should be limited. A good alternative to fruit juices and soda is putting fruit, vegetable slices, and herbs into the water to give it flavor.

It is also recommended that alcohol intake be avoided or kept to a minimum, as there is a consistent link between increased cancer risk and alcohol, regardless of whether it’s beer, wine, or distilled liquor.

Pomegranate Water

Other Recommendations

Any kind of tobacco use is associated with increased cancer risk as well. In addition, it is important to try and limit salt intake, especially in processed meats and foods such as canned, frozen, or fast food items. An alternative would be to look for reduced sodium-canned goods and frozen items without any added salt or sugars. Fast foods, including hamburgers, hotdogs, chips, and french fries along with other energy-dense foods are shown to cause weight gain, which has a negative impact on cancer patients.

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