Childhood Cancer

The typical American diet contains plenty of meat, but few fruits and vegetables. Changing to a healthier diet can cut your risk of cancer and provide other benefits, such as more energy and lower weight. While genetics and environment play a role, you control the rest. Eating a varied diet rich in fruits and vegetables and low in fat, salt, and sugar is a good general health practice.

I’m 44 and I had retinoblastoma when I was 2. For the last few years I’ve been trying to keep my cholesterol down. My dad had a stroke in 1973. I don’t know if he had high cholesterol or not. All of his brothers and his father died of heart attacks. My 50-year-old brother also experienced heart problems, which ultimately led to a bypass. None of the men in the family seem to worry about it until it happens. To lower my cholesterol, I’ve been eating well and taking vitamin supplements. I’ve lost 15 pounds in the last 4 months. I also walk at least 20 minutes every day. I have a guide dog, which helps me maintain a consistent pace.

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I’m looking into nutrition because it’s instrumental in prevention of cancer as well as just having a healthy lifestyle. I’m hypoglycemic, which might have been caused by radiation to my pituitary. I need to eat frequent small meals that have a balance of protein and carbohydrates. That was hard to do at college. Plus, I’m an athlete so I need lots of fuel. I eat a very healthy diet.

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In an ideal world I’d think about my diet, but really, I don’t too much. I try to keep my fat intake low and my fruit and veggie consumption high. But it doesn’t always happen. As a kid, when I was upset I would eat. Then I was conditioned during treatment to eat even if I didn’t feel like it. So it’s been hard to develop and keep good habits.

A healthy diet includes small portions of meat, fish, poultry, eggs, and dairy products. Most of your meals should be made up of:

  • Vegetables and fruits.

  • Whole grains.

  • Tubers such as potatoes, turnips, and sweet potatoes.

  • Legumes such as peas, beans, and lentils.

A nurse at a follow-up clinic explains the following to her patients about their diets:

I tell my patients to try to lower their fat intake (eat fewer French fries and other fast foods), increase fiber (more grains and veggies), and get plenty of calcium. It doesn’t do any good to eat a salad if you slather on the Thousand Island dressing. One tablespoon of that has 100 calories, and some people use a quarter of a cup! Drinking water is better than drinking soda. I also tell parents who are worried about their child’s eating habits to give them a daily vitamin, provide healthy food, and try to stop nagging. Older survivors with weight problems should avoid binge dieting and seek help from organized programs like Weight Watchers ® .

Cancer prevention is not the only benefit of a healthy diet. Eating an abundance of fruits, vegetables, and grains may protect against stroke, high blood pressure, diabetes, and heart disease. Fiber from legumes and grains may help keep your cholesterol low. And antioxidants contained in plants help prevent cataracts and other eye diseases.

There is so much we can do for ourselves to keep ourselves healthy, energized, and living a fulfilling life. Nutrition and exercise are two of them. I do stay very mindful of what I eat, eating as fresh, toxic-free, and varied as I can. Living in California makes that a pretty easy thing to do. I have also done some self-educating on some of the complementary therapies that can strengthen me, and have pursued massage, acupuncture, chiropractic, yoga, meditation, and daily relaxation in the hot tub (works wonders on fibrosis). These have been immensely supportive to my continued well-being. I incorporate many vitamin and herbal supplements in my diet. I also follow all of my medical doctors’ advice and inform them of all I am doing for myself.

I think we need to find out what works best for each of us. I know for myself that it did not work for me to be a vegetarian. With all of the radiation-related swallowing and stomach problems, I could not eat enough strictly vegetarian food to maintain myself. It was easier to incorporate some animal protein to give my diet the balance it needed in a more “compact” food. I’m sure that having a healthy lifestyle is one reason I am still here 32 years after Hodgkin’s and radiation.

If you are overweight or underweight, consider consulting a nutritionist. Most hospitals have a registered dietitian on staff, or you can ask to meet with one through your healthcare provider or follow-up clinic. If you combine the visit with an appointment in the hospital, your insurance may be more likely to cover the costs. If you are looking for a dietitian on your own, ask about credentials (usually a master’s degree) and experience. Beware of anyone who tries to sell nutritional products during a consultation.

Obesity is a possible late effect from treatment for childhood cancer. To learn more about this, see Chapter 17 .