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Three Encouraging Traits of Cancer Patients Who Outlived Their Life Expectancies


A mesothelioma patient with cropped, salt and pepper hair walks along a seaside cliff.

Oncologists do their best to provide accurate predictions for cancer treatment outcomes. This includes estimates of prognosis and life expectancy. But sometimes, cancer patients respond to treatments far better than expected. Sometimes cancer patients outlive their prognoses by years.

Researchers at the National Cancer Institute (NCI) have been trying to understand why this happens. They recently analyzed the traits of 88 cancer patients who outlived their initial life expectancies. NCI calls these patients exceptional responders. The analysis found several common traits among these patients.

Note: All exceptional responders in the NCI study underwent some form of traditional cancer treatment. Most received chemotherapy. Some underwent radiation or immunotherapy. The factors discussed in NCI’s analysis were in addition to the patients’ main treatments, not in place of them.

Exceptional Responders Changed Their Diets

After being diagnosed with cancer, 50% of exceptional responders changed their diets. Most began eating less carbs and meat and more fruit and veggies. A couple of exceptional responders even went vegetarian or vegan.

Researchers do not yet know if – or how much – these specific dietary changes contributed to exceptional responders’ longevity. But evidence does suggest cancer patients may live longer if they work with a dietitian. This effect may be a result of improved nutrition during cancer treatment.

Dietary Changes in Cancer Patients Who Beat the Odds

In a study of cancer patients who outlived their life expectancies, 50% changed their diets after diagnosis. Among that group:

  • 93% increased fruit and veggie intake
  • 87% cut down on carbohydrates
  • 67% cut down on meat

Source: Translational Oncology

Exceptional Responders Changed Their Physical Activity Levels

After diagnosis, 40% of exceptional responders changed their activity levels. Surprisingly, the direction of those changes was not consistent. Among those who changed, about 80% increased and 20% decreased their activity levels.

So, is increasing or decreasing activity better for cancer patients? A recent study in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute (JNCI) can help with this question.

The JNCI study looked at physical activity levels in breast cancer patients. The patients who engaged in low levels of physical activity had better survival than those who did not. A low level of activity would include exercising for 30 minutes per day, five days per week.

Researchers do not yet know if a certain type of physical activity is more beneficial for cancer survival. But the NCI analysis and JNCI study seem to agree: physical activity is important for cancer patients. And even low levels of activity may improve survival.

So, the trick may be for cancer patients to stick to a level of activity that keeps them moving throughout treatment.

Exceptional Responders Used Complementary Cancer Therapies

Of exceptional responders, 60% used some form of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM). CAM therapy usage occurred during the same time period as the main cancer treatment. CAM approaches generally do not cure or treat cancer. But they may help ease symptoms and treatment side effects.

Exceptional responders who used CAM therapies tended to use several. The most common CAM choices were massage therapy, acupuncture and meditation. It is possible that CAM therapies encouraged exceptional responses to treatment. But NCI researchers do not yet know if that was the case. Additional research may help clarify this point.

Whether they improve survival or not, CAM therapies may improve quality of life. Interested patients should discuss CAM therapies with their oncologists.

What Does It Mean for Mesothelioma Patients?

NCI’s exceptional responder analysis included a small number of mesothelioma patients. But the researchers did not have enough information to draw firm conclusions for any patients.

Still, mesothelioma patients may take NCI’s information as encouragement to explore their options. Topics of interest may include:

Patients can also discuss exceptional responder traits with a mesothelioma doctor. The doctor can help patients weigh the pros and cons of lifestyle changes or complementary therapies.