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Lifestyle advice for cancer survivors: What are health professionals’ current practices?

SusanneMeisel3 March 2015

As more and more people are likely to get a cancer diagnosis, trying to find ways to manage the long-term effects of cancer becomes ever more important. Cancer survivors are not only at risk of their cancer coming back but they are also at risk of heart disease, osteoporosis (bone thinning), and diabetes.

Making lifestyle changes following a cancer diagnosis may be one way to reduce some the long-term effects of cancer. For example, changing to a low-fat diet has been shown to reduce the chance of some types of cancer coming back. Similarly, being active after a cancer diagnosis may reduce the chance of getting one of the other conditions that are common in people with cancer. Stopping smoking also improves survival after a cancer diagnosis.

In light of the evidence from these research studies, many cancer organisations have produced lifestyle recommendations for cancer survivors (http://www.macmillan.org.uk/information-and-support/coping/maintaining-a-healthy-lifestyle). However, it seems there is room for improvement in the number of people following these guidelines. Although health professionals may be in a good position to give advice on lifestyle changes after a cancer diagnosis, until now it was not clear which factors determine whether or not they do it.

To find out, our researchers asked over 400 health professionals ranging from doctors, nurses and allied health professionals (e.g. dieticians and physiotherapists) questions on awareness of lifestyle guidelines for cancer survivors, current practices with regard to giving advice on smoking, diet, exercise, weight and alcohol, and things they felt would stop them from giving advice. Most respondents were nurses, and most worked with a range of different cancer patients.

The results showed that although a proportion of health professionals (about one third of the sample) were not aware of any lifestyle guidelines for cancer survivors, most reported to give some form of lifestyle advice to their patients. However, often they discussed lifestyle with fewer than half of their patients and did not talk about all lifestyle behaviours. Respondents who were aware of lifestyle guidelines were more likely to give lifestyle advice on all lifestyle behaviours. In contrast, health professionals who believed that a healthier lifestyle would make little difference to cancer survival were less likely to recommend lifestyle changes to their patients.

The study had a big sample which means that findings are unlikely to be due to chance. However, because people responded voluntarily, they may be more likely to be interested in lifestyle advice and cancer than other health professionals. In addition, because most respondents were nurses, it is impossible to say whether the results would be the same had we asked more doctors and allied health professionals.

Nonetheless, these findings show that it is important to help health professionals keep up-to-date with the latest research findings on lifestyle and cancer survival because their endorsement may be important in motivating cancer survivors to make lifestyle changes.  In a previous study, our researchers have shown that cancer survivors would welcome this advice from health professionals. Making lifestyle advice a formal part of cancer care might help ensure that all cancer survivors are aware of this important information.

 

Article Reference: Williams K, Beeken RJ, Fisher A, Wardle J: Health professionals’ provision of lifestyle advice in the oncology context in the United Kingdom. European Journal of Cancer Care. DOI: 10.1111/ecc.12305 b