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Lifestyle Medicine: Changing Lives, Empowering Patients

Photo Credit: Mass General Cancer Center

There are 14 million cancer survivors in the U.S., according to the American Cancer Society, and as treatments improve and more people are diagnosed at earlier stages, cancer survivors are living longer, prompting a paradigm shift from merely living, to living well.

It turns out some factors that improve quality of life may also increase survival. A 2013 study in the New England Journal of Medicine compared late-stage lung cancer patients who received standard oncology care with those who also received palliative care (symptom management, psychosocial support and help with decision making) soon after diagnosis. Patients in the palliative care group not only reported improvements in mood and quality of life, but they also received less aggressive end-of-life care and lived 30% longer than those who received only standard care.

One way that patients are experiencing an improved quality of life is through Lifestyle Medicine, a relatively new branch in the medical field. For many survivors, a cancer diagnosis offers a bittersweet opportunity to make lifestyle changes that may ultimately save their lives. The same habits that make for health and wellness before diagnosis make for health and wellness during treatment and afterwards.

At the Massachusetts General Hospital, Betsy O’Donnell, M.D. is helping improve patients’ quality of life.  “I have had a lifetime passion for athletics and recognized that there was an unmet need to provide patients with the exercise and lifestyle counseling that they seek, said Dr. O’Donnell, a hematologist/oncologist at the Mass General Cancer Center. “This, and my work in the Multiple Myeloma Disease Center have fueled my special interest in exercise and lifestyle medicine.”

According to Dr. O’Donnell, the Mass General Hospital is uniquely poised to offer extensive resources to meet the needs of their patients, including some of the nation’s preeminent exercise cardiologists and an outstanding weight center. “We have good data in breast and colon cancer that exercise during and after cancer treatment can improve patient quality of life and risk of disease recurrence and death from disease. We also have data in other malignancies that exercise is safe.” said Dr. O’Donnell.

Studies even show that exercise helps multiple pathways in people with cancer, including metabolic, inflammation, and immunologic. There is even some evidence to suggest that exercise can slow tumor growth. The physical and emotional benefits from making healthy lifestyle choices during and after cancer treatment can have far-reaching benefits. It gives patients an opportunity to take control—to do something concrete to care for themselves.

How Can Lifestyle Medicine Help?

  • Improve quality of life
  • Improve side effects from treatment
  • Improve physical function
  • Improve mood
  • Improve fatigue
  • Improve cancer outcomes

Putting it all together, Dr. O’Donnell believes in empowering her patients to be part of their wellness program. Eating healthy, nutrient rich foods and avoiding excessive sugar and alcohol are cornerstones for the body to promote healing. Getting at least 30 minutes of exercise per day, at least 5 days-per-week, will have lasting benefits on quality of life and maybe even increase survival.

Dr. O’Donnell is the Director of Lifestyle Medicine and a hematologist/oncologist in the Multiple Myeloma Disease Center at the Massachusetts General Hospital. She completed her residency in internal medicine at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center where she served an additional year as a Chief Medical Resident. She completed her fellowship in hematology and oncology in the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute/MGH combined program. She is an Instructor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School. Dr. O’Donnell’s interest in exercise intervention and lifestyle medicine is born out of her own passion for athletics and personal health. As an undergraduate at Yale University, Dr. O’Donnell was a Division I All-American in the sport of lacrosse and All-Ivy in both lacrosse and field hockey.  She was also an amateur All-American in the sports of triathlon which she pursued competitively.