Cancer survivors, especially those just recently out of treatment, have more to worry about during the summer than simply keeping the sunscreen and bug spray handy. A simple game of tennis can bring on lymphedema; the germs at the local swimming hole are more dangerous than usual. Here are five things to watch out for while you’re having fun.
Especially if you’ve undergone chemotherapy, as a new cancer survivor you’re more prone to infection. Cancer treatment wears down the body; fatigue and stress can lower resistance to illnesses of all kinds. And if you do become sick, it’s often harder to recover, since treatment has compromised your immune system.
How can you protect yourself from illness?
- It’s tempting to hit the pool in the middle of a hot day or the beach on a weekend, but that’s when everyone else is there — with their summer colds, stomach flu, and other ills. See if you can rearrange your schedule to enjoy the water in the evening, early morning, or on a weekday, rather than at high-traffic times.
- Stay hydrated. Dehydration stresses your body; keep a water bottle on hand wherever you go. Ice water is refreshing on a hot day, so it shouldn’t be a chore to keep drinking. For interest, try slicing some fresh fruit or berries into the water, and add a splash of lemon juice.
- Wash your hands after being outdoors. Whether you’re pulling weeds, cleaning the kids’ pool, or simply kicking back in a deck chair, germs thrive in warm weather, and they’re everywhere. Keep them at bay with soap and water.
As the chief circulation method for white blood cells, the lymph system works to filter bacteria and other harmful substances from the body. Women who’ve had a mastectomy, had underarm lymph nodes removed, or have had radiation run the risk of developing lymphedema: a damaged lymph system. Which translates to swelling — sometimes severe — in the trunk, arm, and hand of the affected side. Left untreated, lymphedema can become cellulitis, a serious skin infection.
The chief cause of lymphedema is any kind of injury to the hand or arm, from something as minor as a mosquito bite or a small scratch to severe sunburn or a broken bone. Summertime means you’re exposed to more potential opportunities for these kinds of injuries.
Steps to avoid lymphedema-causing injuries:
- Apply bug spray to prevent tick, mosquito, and insect bites of all kinds.
- Use sunscreen to guard against sunburn.
- Wear gloves and long sleeves while gardening to prevent cuts and scratches to your hands and arms.
- Don’t overdo physical activities that require your arms and shoulders. Water-skiing, kayaking, swimming, tennis… it’s possible to have too much of a good thing when it results in an over-use injury.
The subject is well-researched, and the data is in: the more alcohol you consume, the higher your risk of breast cancer. The National Cancer Institute notes that “More than 100 epidemiologic studies… have consistently found an increased risk of breast cancer associated with increasing alcohol intake.”
But you enjoy alcohol! What should you do?
- Limit alcohol consumption to no more than one drink daily, which increases breast cancer risk just minimally.
- Drink red wine, if you can; it offers heart-healthy benefits other alcoholic beverages don’t.
- Don’t binge drink! Seven beers on Saturday is worse for your health, in general, than a single drink each day of the week.
When attending a party:
- If you like a cocktail, start with a margarita or other mixed drink. As you sip, continually add fruit juice and seltzer, but no more liquor. You’ll feel more in tune with the party if you have a drink in your hand — even when the alcohol is missing.
- Decide ahead of time how much you’ll drink, and stick to your plan. It’s easy to get carried away, but counting your drinks and cutting yourself off is more realistic if you know your limit right from the start.
Sunburn is never a good thing. We all know by now that it increases the risk of skin cancer; and once you’re a cancer survivor, do you really want to go through it again? Some types of chemotherapy can increase your sensitivity to the sun, as can radiation. Even if you were never prone to sunburn before, as someone who’s gone through cancer treatment, you might be now.
What’s a sun-lover to do?
- Wear sunscreen — of course! Make sure it’s the type that prevents ultraviolet (UV) exposure (it will say so on the label). Apply it frequently. If you’ll be swimming, choose water-resistant sunscreen.
- Apply sunscreen all over, not just on shoulders and arms. Hands, feet (if you’re wearing sandals or going barefoot), ears, the back of your knees — everywhere that might be exposed to sun needs to be screened.
- Wear a hat. Especially if you’ve had chemo, your hair may not provide as much protection against the sun as it once did.
- Limit outdoor exposure during the heat of the day: 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. The sun’s injurious rays are strongest during those hours.
According to breastcancer.org, the smoke from animal fat dripping on hot coals includes chemicals that may increase the risk of breast cancer. The National Cancer Institute cites evidence that meat or fish grilled until well done contains chemicals that can affect cells’ DNA, potentially leading to cancer.
What’s a dedicated cookout-lover to do?
- Grill food minimally. Poaching or microwaving meat or fish before finishing on the grill can help reduce time over the coals.
- Turn grilled items often. Go for an even char, rather than blackened on one side, light on the other.
- Alternate grilled meals with other types of cooking. Rather than automatically lighting the grill each night, try salads, sandwiches, or other hot-weather fare some evenings.
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PJ Hamel is senior digital content editor and food writer at King Arthur Flour, and a James Beard award-winning author. A 16-year breast cancer survivor, her passion is helping women through this devastating disease. She manages a large and active online survivor support network based at her local hospital and shares her wisdom and experience with the greater community via HealthCentral.com.