MONDAY, April 21, 2008 (HealthDay News) -- A healthy lifestyle may help cancer survivors prevent recurrence of the disease and live longer, yet cancer survivors have rates of obesity and physical inactivity similar to those of the general population, according to new research.
The study, published in the June 1 issue of Cancer, found that less than one-quarter of cancer survivors were regularly physically active, and more than 18 percent were obese.
"We thought this might be a time when people would be particularly motivated to exercise and control weight. But, a cancer diagnosis and treatment didn't seem to stimulate behavior change," said the study's lead author, Kerry Courneya, a professor and Canada Research Chair at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada.
What's troubling is that maintaining a healthy weight and getting regular physical exercise may be even more crucial for cancer survivors than it is for the general public. Some studies have suggested that physical activity and losing weight may help prevent cancer recurrence and improve survival odds.
Additionally, some research suggests that exercise can help reduce fatigue, improve physical functioning and improve quality of life for some cancer survivors.
For the study, Courneya and his colleagues gathered data from the Canadian Community Health Survey. This survey contains information based on interviews of more than 114,000 people in Canada. Details of cancer history, weight, height and physical activity were all supplied by the respondents.
General population statistics for Canada find that 37 percent of people are overweight, and 22 percent are obese, according to background information in the study.
Fewer than 22 percent of cancer survivors reported being physically active. The lowest rates of physical activity were found among colorectal cancer survivors, breast cancer survivors and female survivors of melanoma.
Thirty-four percent of cancer survivors were overweight, and almost one in five was obese.
Obese breast cancer survivors were only about half as likely to be physically active as obese women who hadn't had cancer, a finding that's particularly worrisome, because poor outcomes in breast cancer have been associated with obesity and the often accompanying sedentary lifestyle.
"We really didn't know which way the research would go. Cancer survivors may be more motivated at the time of their diagnosis to make changes, but others point out that it's a very stressful time that can take a toll and lead to the opposite effect," Courneya said.
Kevin Stein, director of Quality of Life Research at the American Cancer Society, said, "This is an important finding to underscore the fact that cancer survivors need to pay attention to their health. You've dodged a bullet for the time being, but cancer survivors are actually at an increased risk for a number of health conditions, including cancer recurrence.
"There is a teachable moment when someone is diagnosed. It's the perfect opportunity to say, 'We all need to eat healthy and exercise, but it's even more important for you as a cancer survivor,' " he said.
Courneya added: "This is something they can do for themselves to help beat cancer and improve quality of life. The cancer community needs to get more involved in the promotion of healthy lifestyles in cancer patients. Maybe a program something like cardiac rehabilitation. The cancer community's been slower to realize the importance of lifestyle changes after cancer diagnosis."
To learn more about physical activity and cancer, visit the American Society of Clinical Oncology.