cancer survivor woman exercising

Cancer Survivors: They're Everywhere

Cancer survivors are everywhere. Whether it be a grandparent, teacher, or friend, most everyone has a loved one who has, or has had, cancer. As of January 1, 2019, an estimated 16.9 million individuals with a history of cancer were alive in the United States. This number is only growing, as by January 1, 2030, it is estimated that the population of cancer survivors will increase to more than 22.1 million due to the growth and aging of the population alone.

Survivors can be any age and at any stage of life. Though, the majority of cancer survivors (67%) were diagnosed 5 or more years ago, and 18% were diagnosed 20 or more years ago. Nearly two-thirds (64%) of survivors are 65 years of age or older, while only 1 in 10 are younger than 50 years of age, with considerable variation by cancer type among ages.

Cancer Survivorship: What People Don't Talk About

Cancer is one of the most challenging things you can endure in a lifetime. It takes a major toll on a person both mentally and physically due to the cancer diagnosis itself and side effects of cancer treatment (chemotherapy, radiation, etc.).

Something that many people don’t talk about is how hard it can be on a person once they have finished their cancer treatments and survived cancer. Survivors often ask themselves - now what? It’s impossible to expect a person’s life to go right back to normal. Survivors often feel alone after the fact, not having many people who understand what they went through to fully be able to support them. Plus, it can be incredibly challenging to regain the motivation to keep up with the physical demands and nutrition changes needed in order to maintain a healthy lifestyle. This is such a common occurrence that 1 in 4 cancer survivors report that they have a decreased quality of life due to physical problems, while 1 in 10 survivors report a decreased quality of life due to emotional problems.

Survivor Well-being

With all of the challenges that survivors face, it’s especially important for them to prioritize their well-being. This doesn’t just include physical well-being, though that is certainly necessary, but it also includes emotional (psychological), social, economic, and spiritual well-being.

Physical Well-being

A survivor’s physical well-being is affected by the various side effects such as pain, fatigue, poor sleep quality, and more. These physical side effects can majorly impact a survivor’s ability to perform everyday tasks and activities.

Emotional (or Psychological) Well-being

Emotional (psychological) well-being is impacted by the side effects like anxiety, depression, fearing the recurrence of cancer, and memory/concentration issues, all being common among survivors.

Social Well-being

Social well-being involves the ability to create and maintain healthy relationships with family and friends. This also includes intimacy and sexuality, which can both be negatively impacted by a cancer diagnosis.

Economic Well-being

Economic well-being is often overlooked, but can be a major issue for cancer survivors. It’s no secret that paying for cancer treatments is a major financial investment. Plus, a lot of cancer survivors struggle with getting back into the workforce. Both of these items can cause a survivor’s economic well-being to really take a hit.

Spiritual Well-being

Spiritual well-being for cancer survivors mainly revolves around their relationship with their religion and their ability to maintain hope and resilience when uncertain about the status of their future health.

While survivors are strong and resilient, most have to make plenty of wellness adjustments to find themselves a “new normal” in life. Plus, well-being among survivors varies, especially when it comes to the aggressiveness of the treatments they endure. Thus, we know there’s no one one-size-fits-all approach to this.

Healthy Behaviors in Cancer Survivorship

So, where do survivors start with improving their well-being? The first step is to practice a healthy lifestyle, which is especially important when it comes to reducing the risk of recurrence, progression, and additional cancers.


For cancer survivors who are physically able, getting the proper amount of exercise is essential in order to improve quality of life. It can help reduce the risk of recurrence, while increasing survival for some cancers. Physical activity can also help with recovery from side effects of cancer treatment, and prevent the development of other side effects, as well. This improvement in side effects may include heart and lung function, cancer-related fatigue, anxiety, depression, self-esteem, and overall happiness.

The American Cancer Society gives the following physical activity guidelines for cancer survivors:

Get Moving

Cancer survivors should avoid being inactive after diagnosis and treatment, and are encouraged to return to their typical daily activities as soon as possible.

Start Slow
Survivors don’t need to immediately push themselves when it comes to physical activity. They are encouraged to start slow and build the amount of activity up over time.
How Much
Once a survivor has built up to consistently exercising, it is recommended they receive 150-300 minutes of moderate (or 75-150 minutes of vigorous intensity) activity a week. If that seems to be too hard to track or stay on top of, try to exercise several times a week for at least 10 minutes at a time.
Change It Up
Don’t just do the same workout routine every day. Try to change up your exercises and target different parts of your body. Resistance training exercises should be added to your routine at least 2 days per week. Resistance training can be done with free weights, machines, resistance bands, or even your own body weight. Stretching exercises should also be built into your workouts at least 2 days per week. Whether this is yoga, pilates, or barre, there are plenty of fun ways to stretch your body. Click here to browse mind and body classes at the YMCA.


While exercise is a main factor in cancer survivors leading a healthy lifestyle, nutrition also plays a large role. Studies have shown that controlling what we eat helps reduce the risk of both developing subsequent cancers and the risk of chronic diseases. 

The American Cancer Society gives the following dietary recommendations for cancer survivors:

Choose a diet rich in whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and healthy proteins, fats, and carbohydrates.
  • Try to aim for around 1 ½ - 2 cups of fruit and 2-3 cups of vegetables each day.
  • Fats often get a bad reputation, but consuming healthy fats, especially omega-3 fatty acids (such as those found in fish and walnuts), can be vital in improving one’s health.
  • Choose to consume proteins that are lower in saturated fat. Some good choices include fish, lean meats (chicken, turkey), eggs, nuts, seeds, and legumes (beans, lentils).
  • Try to limit red meat consumption to one serving a week, as red meat has been linked to an increased risk of certain cancers.
  • Carbs are important in one’s diet, but opt for a healthy source of carbs when possible, like whole grains, legumes, fruits, and vegetables.
Limit consumption of alcohol, processed foods, and sugars.


Cancer is a devastating diagnosis for people of all ages and backgrounds. Receiving a diagnosis and going through various forms of treatment can take a serious toll on a person both physically and emotionally. That’s where we come in.

The Mission of LIVESTRONG® at the YMCA is to empower adult cancer survivors to improve functional capacity and to increase their quality of life through an organized program of fitness and strength.

LIVESTRONG® at the YMCA provides support and guidance to help survivors rebuild and gain strength. This 12-week program for adult cancer survivors meets twice a week. YMCA wellness coaches work with each participant to fit the program to his or her individual needs. The instructors are trained in the elements of cancer, post rehab exercise, and supportive cancer care.

A final goal of the program is to assist participants in developing their own physical fitness program, so they can continue to practice a healthy lifestyle, not only as part of their recovery but as a way of life.

Learn More

Category: Healthy Living