Lifestyle changes can decrease cancer likelihood, improve outcomes

February 10, 2022
Dr. Tucker Price
Sarah Tucker Price, M.D., Ph.D., meets with a patient at MUSC Hollings Cancer Center. Photo by Brennan Wesley

Big changes start with small steps. It’s more than just a saying – it’s a reality when looking at the impact that small lifestyle changes can have on a person’s cancer risk.

Sarah Tucker Price, M.D., Ph.D., an MUSC Hollings Cancer Center researcher and MUSC Health primary care specialist, knows firsthand how much lifestyle habits can affect both the chances of a person getting cancer but also how well that person might respond to a particular treatment.

Price leads an innovative program at Hollings providing in-house primary care to cancer patients who oftentimes enter treatment without having primary care doctors. By offering a one-stop shop, providers can streamline care and identify other chronic medical issues that could affect their patients’ cancer treatments.

As part of her role at Hollings, Price helps patients to manage all of their health care, as sometimes cancer patients get overwhelmed with managing multiple chronic conditions.

Price recently summarized the results of a U.K. study for other cancer researchers in Hollings’ Cancer Control Research Program Journal Club. The study, which was published in BMC Cancer, looked at over 300,000 patients who had been diagnosed with lung, rectal and colon cancers and Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Researchers studied the prevalence of comorbidities, a term which refers to a patient having two or more diseases or medical conditions at the same time. Researchers looked at comorbidities including diabetes, COPD, hypertension, obesity, congestive heart failure, cardiovascular disease, peripheral vascular disease, heart attacks and rheumatic conditions.

“Comorbidities are important when we consider cancer because it can affect every stage of the cancer continuum,” Price said. “Comorbidities play a role in cancer prevention efforts, timing of diagnosis, treatment effectiveness, quality of life and overall mortality rates.”

Price said two thirds of cancer patients studied were found to have at least one comorbidity. Researchers have found that patients with comorbidities are more likely to have complications with cancer treatments, lower survival rates and a worse overall quality of life.

“Take, for example, a cancer patient who also has diabetes. That patient is more prone to neuropathy, which is when nerve damage leads to weakness, pain and numbness. Neuropathy is likely to worsen during chemotherapy treatment,” Price said. “The worsening neuropathy is going to have a negative impact on the quality of life and increase that patient’s fall risk, which, then, in turn can lead to other health issues arising.”

Emphasizing healthy lifestyle choices is especially important in South Carolina, where a large portion of the population lives in rural and medically underserved communities. Previous research has shown that these patients are more prone to obesity, high blood pressure and diabetes and smoke at a higher rate than patients living in more urban areas.

Dr. Marvella Ford 
Marvella Ford, Ph.D.

February is National Cancer Prevention month, and as South Carolina’s only National Cancer Institute-designated cancer center, Hollings is on a mission to reduce the burden of cancer on all South Carolinians. Marvella Ford, Ph.D., associate director of Population Sciences and Cancer Disparities at Hollings, said the study sheds light on high-risk patients in medically underserved communities who often lack access to medical care, cancer screenings and cancer prevention education.

It’s one reason she is proud to see the impact that Hollings’ MOVENUP Train the Trainer program has had since launching in 2007. More than 925 community leaders have been trained and equipped with cancer prevention education that they’ve shared with over 5,000 people in 19 primarily rural South Carolina counties.

“This program is so important because we are focused on preventing cancer and catching cancer early in these underserved communities,” Ford said. “Oftentimes, these patients lack knowledge that can result in them developing one or more comorbidity. During these training sessions, we focus on things like healthy eating, physical activity, avoiding excessive amounts of alcohol and the importance of quitting smoking.”

The impact that lifestyle choices have on cancer prevention, treatment and outcomes has been an area that researchers have studied in the past. Results of a study published in JAMA Oncology in January found that cancer patients who lived a more sedentary lifestyle had far lower survival rates than those who remained active.

Another study looked at the impact of a healthy diet and found that patients with melanoma who had eaten high-fiber diets during immunotherapy treatments survived longer without a cancer growth than patients with a lower-fiber diet. Hollings researcher David Turner, Ph.D., is looking into the impacts of AGEs, or advanced glycation end products, in the body and cancer risk. Turner and his collaborators are promoting the connection between AGEs and lifestyle choices to educate the public about making better food choices.

Ford said simple lifestyle changes in diet and exercise can make a difference.

“Simply walking around the block a few times or increasing fruits and vegetables can make a huge difference when it comes to cancer prevention and cancer survivorship,” she explained. “We aren’t talking about a huge lifestyle shift. We want to educate our patients about things within their control that can impact the chance of developing, and possibly dying from, cancer.”

Price hopes that these studies encourage more patients to pay attention to their own individual lifestyle choices. “It is important to maintain a healthy lifestyle and have a balanced diet, regular physical activity and limited alcohol intake and avoid tobacco use, among other healthy habits, to reduce your risk of multiple health conditions,” she said. “Regular visits with your primary care doctor are important for screening for and managing any chronic health conditions.”