After Cancer

Addressing unique topics for those in survivorship

Survivorship and Your Immune System

To improve health, strengthen your immune system. This system responds to bodily threats with inflammation like heat, swelling, pain or irritation. Short-term inflammation helps quell an immediate threat like a cut or virus, but long-term, low level inflammation is harmful. Over time, this reaction can damage blood vessels and organs. Medications, lifestyle habits, environment, genetics, and chronic illness or disease can indirectly harm the immune system via inflammation.

Inflammatory Sources

Stress, lack of quality sleep, physical inactivity, overeating, and a high intake of processed food, factory fats and added sugar can sabotage your immune health by raising inflammation. Family or personal medical history, medications or your environment may not be changeable, but you can alter daily habits. A healthy diet, regular moderate-intensity exercise and physical activity, sleeping seven to nine hours, and learning how to manage stress can lower inflammation and improve immune health.

Immune System Boosters

Certain foods can help. The immune system needs fluids, vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals (nutrients and antioxidants) to work efficiently and effectively. Eat more fruits, vegetables, legumes (beans, peas, lentils), high fiber multi-grains, nuts, seeds and mushrooms. Add protein from marine sources (fish, shellfish), poultry, soy and some dairy. These foods are rich in zinc, selenium, iron, copper, folic acid, fiber, protein, vitamins A, C, E, and B-complex to maximize immune health.

Super-Charged Eats

Vitamin C your breakfast with fruits (not juice) like citrus (orange, grapefruit, tangerine), papaya or berries added to fiber-rich oatmeal. Sauté bell peppers, broccoli and spinach with your omega-3-rich eggs from pastured, free-range, organic or locally raised chickens.

Vitamin E your lunch with salad: dark leafy greens (raw spinach, arugula, finely chopped kale), almonds, sunflower seeds, raisins and canned tuna for omega-3 fats; top with extra-virgin olive oil, vinegar, squeeze of lemon juice, fresh or dried herbs, and spices.

Zinc your dinner with chicken, turkey or seafood (crab, shrimp, lobster, oysters, mussels), grilled or roasted vegetables (Brussels sprouts, potatoes, cauliflower, squash, carrots, zucchini) and one cup brown rice with a ½ cup beans or lentils. Mind portions and use standard serving sizes. Avoid charred or burnt meats by marinating thin pieces and grilling or cooking at lower heat.

Vitamin D your snack with fruit smoothies of plain/unsweetened yogurt, kefir or milk (dairy, goat, soy, almond, coconut, hemp, oat), one to two cups of frozen or fresh fruits (pineapple, banana, orange, berries, cherries, kiwi, melons) and one to two tablespoons seeds (flax, chia, hemp). Try pumpkin puree, peanut butter, unsweetened cocoa (for chocolate), ground nuts, oats, oat bran, spices (cinnamon, nutmeg, clove or pumpkin pie) or extracts (coconut, mint, almond, vanilla, orange). Get smoothie inspiration here.

Anti-Inflammatory Tips

Drink more water. Squeeze in citrus, muddle fresh mint or frozen berries, drizzle with 100% juice or dilute coffee and tea with extra water. Brew herbal teas (fruit, flower) together and cool for a flavored iced tea without sugar, try seltzer or club soda mixed with 4 ounces of 100% fruit juice or 50/50 mix of iced coffee and milk. Reduce added sugar intake with homemade tea or coffee rather than buying. Avoid or limit alcohol per standard guidelines

Eat whole grains with at least 3 grams of fiber per serving. Check food labels and compare the serving size to what you will eat. Shrink portions with salad or dessert plates to trick your brain into eating less. Pre-portion snacks and sweets into snack-size baggies and choose those with a benefit (fiber, cocoa, nuts, seeds, fruit) such as dark chocolate, popcorn or trail mix. Avoid fried, packaged and fast foods. Use the American Institute for Cancer Research’s Healthy Eating Plate.

Move more and sit less. Set an alarm to get up and stretch every 30 to 60 minutes. Get outside for fresh air, walk daily or take steps. Build muscle with strength or resistance training. Work with a physical therapist if needed or review other tips here.

Improve sleep quality by sleeping in a cool, dark bedroom. Talk to your healthcare team about sleep issues. Learn more.

Learn to manage stress with yoga, tai chi, aqua therapy or stretching to calm body and mind. Start a meditation practice or a five-count in/out deep breathing exercise. Search phone, video applications or downloads. Remaining calm relaxes the immune system.

Wash your hands. Especially before eating or touching your face. Lower your risk of infection; learn more here.

When in doubt, choose more plants. If it grows, eat it. Food made in a factory only improves industry economics. Focus on plants, seafood and healthy fats. Take a walk. Take a nap. Keep calm and carry on.

Mindy Athas, R.D.N., C.S.O., L.D.N., is the outpatient dietitian nutritionist at the William E. Kahlert Regional Cancer Center.