Cancer wellness: staying healthy in the age of COVID-19

Stay Healthy
For cancer survivors, eating nutritious food and staying physically active are more important than ever due to COVID-19.


While the COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically altered society, no group has been more affected than cancer survivors, according to Barry Boyd, MD, a medical oncologist at the Smilow Cancer Hospital Care Center in Greenwich who has taught about the connection between nutrition and cancer at Yale School of Medicine for 14 years.

The need to quarantine and practice social distancing, along with delayed surgeries and radiologic studies, altered treatment schedules and the switch to telemedicine visits, have all heightened patient anxiety.

Medical conditions such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer have significantly increased in the past century, reflecting Western-style diet and sedentary lifestyles. A prediabetic state known as metabolic syndrome (now affecting over 40 percent of Americans over age 40) typically precedes the onset of these diseases. Metabolic syndrome may also play a role in increased mortality from COVID-19, with higher death rates among those over 65 with obesity, diabetes, hypertension and metabolic dysfunction. Evidence also shows cancer treatments may exacerbate metabolic dysfunction, which can worsen outcomes.

Given the current pandemic, it’s more important than ever to focus on nutrition, weight management and exercise to reduce the risk of cancer recurrence and improve treatment outcomes. All of these factors are central to managing metabolic syndrome and staying healthy.

Eat nutritious food

Anxiety can drive some people to consume unhealthy comfort foods, leading to weight gain and adverse metabolic features. A healthy plant-based diet (such as the Mediterranean diet) that is low in concentrated carbohydrates and includes healthy fats and lean proteins is associated with improved cancer outcomes, and can be beneficial in the COVID-19 setting. While optimal weight through diet is a goal, individuals with advanced cancer need to be careful because they are at risk for weight loss and muscle loss.

Get physically active

Some individuals have reduced their level of activity due to the pandemic. Yet daily physical activity is central to metabolic health and, despite social distancing, can be easily incorporated into daily living. Aim for 30 to 45 minutes four to five days a week of aerobic exercise (running, biking, vigorous walking, yoga) coupled with stretching, and two to three days of strength training. Th is may lead to improving outcomes in cancer as well as health benefits.

Dietary supplements

The use of dietary supplements, often common among cancer patients, has become more widespread due to concerns about cancer recurrence and the COVID-19 crisis. Unfortunately, many consumers and physicians are unaware of the risks and limited benefits of most supplements. While vitamins and minerals are essential for normal cellular function and effective immune responses, a balanced diet remains the best approach to limiting nutrient deficiency. Many patients mistakenly consume over-the-counter micronutrients (vitamins and supplements) at levels well beyond what is rational.

What is a safe and effective supplement approach for cancer patients? A daily dose of vitamin D3 (2000 IU) is safe for almost all patients. In today’s COVID-19 environment, evidence supports the benefit of adequate vitamin D in limiting risk and adverse outcomes from infection. Avoid high doses of B12 or B-complex. A single multivitamin can provide adequate but not excess levels of necessary vitamins and minerals. A daily dose of zinc (30-50 mg) benefits immune function and gastrointestinal health. Important in the setting of acute illness and viral infections, vitamin C (250-500 mg a day) assures adequacy without excess. Avoid herbal and supplements claiming to protect against COVID-19, such as elderberry, echinacea or “immuneboosting” botanicals.

Seek care

Last, don’t let concerns about COVID-19 keep you from seeking medical and preventive care. Greenwich Hospital, along with its outpatient facilities and physician practices, has implemented numerous safety measures, including additional screening and testing, social distancing, advanced cleaning and separate units to care for patients who do not have the coronavirus.