For many people, a cancer diagnosis leaves them feeling like they have failed at being healthy. Those with advanced, incurable illness often feel like they’ve been permanently shut out of the land of the healthy. But it isn’t true; it is possible to be focused on living healthfully for most of our adult lives, maintaining a mostly plant-based diet, exercising regularly, and meditating and practicing frequently…and still get cancer. When we get that diagnosis, we don’t say “I used to be healthy.” It is still very much possible to be a healthy person with cancer. What we are seeing now, though, is what many naturopathic doctors have known for years: the body’s overall health is going to help in our fight against cancer.

For naturopathic doctors, this is not a surprising concept. Naturopathic medicine seeks to optimize the health of the whole person using diet, exercise and lifestyle changes; also, when appropriate, they offer vitamins, minerals and food-based supplements. Patients’ energy, sleep, digestion and sense of well-being can improve; all of these factors can improve overall well-being whether someone has cancer or not.

Oncologists may be open to a naturopath’s recommendations for their patients as long as it doesn’t interfere with chemotherapy or radiation. The treatments often help the oncologist’s patients feel like they are actively participating in their own care. The patients aren’t simply showing up for visits, passively receiving treatment, then going home to sit and wait for the next round. Although oncologists may not be convinced a naturopath is helping their patients fight cancer, they usually approve of the fighting spirit the practitioner helps to impart.

Exercise is a good example. Studies are published quite frequently these days demonstrating that people with cancer can improve their quality of life with exercise. A 2016 meta-analysis published in OncoTargets and Therapy demonstrated that exercise can help to alleviate anxiety and depression; improve emotional and social well-being; and positively impact lean body mass, body mass index and muscle strength. All that while helping to reduce insulin and insulin-like growth factor-II in women with breast cancer who exercise during cancer treatment. Not only do women who exercise after a cancer diagnosis get healthier and feel better, they also live longer. Another landmark meta-analysis, published in 2015 in Acta Oncologica, demonstrated that women with breast cancer that exercise have lower rates of all-cause and breast cancer-related death; they also have fewer recurrences, incidences of progression and new primary cancers. This effect held true for women that exercised prior to diagnosis, as well as women that began exercising both during and after cancer treatment.

Let’s look at another marker of overall health: vitamin D status. It turns out that women with higher circulating levels of vitamin D also have better outcomes when it comes to fighting breast cancer. There’s a clear linear relationship between vitamin D status and overall survival; this means that the more vitamin D circulating in our blood, the longer we are likely to live, according to a meta-analysis published in Integrative Cancer Therapies in 2017.

While breast cancer often dominates integrative cancer research, those with breast cancer are obviously not the only patients who can benefit from improving their overall health status. Take something that many people overlook in this fast-paced day and age: healthy sleep habits. Published in Sleep Medicine in 2017, a recent study of patients with advanced biliary and pancreatic cancer found that those with the best sleep habits had better overall survival. Healthy sleep is likewise important for those diagnosed with colorectal cancer. People with colorectal cancer who sleep seven to eight hours per night have a 36 percent improvement in overall survival compared to those who sleep less than five hours per night, found a 2017 study in Sleep. In fact, sleeping less than five hours per night was associated with a 54 percent increase in colorectal cancer-associated mortality.

Research is ongoing on the impact of adopting healthful eating habits after a cancer diagnosis. We may very well see similar results to those found about the impact of exercise. The bottom line is that it is never too late to adopt a personalized exercise regimen, boost circulating levels of vitamin D, or work on longer and sounder periods of rest.

Marie Winters ND, FABNO is a faculty member of the University of Bridgeport’s Naturopathic Medicine program. She offers personalized natural medicine in her Philadelphia, Pennsylvania practice, specializing in allergies, asthma, digestive disorders and integrative oncology. She is also the president of the Pennsylvania Association of Naturopathic Physicians. Connect at