Study author Sonia Duffy of the University of Michigan School of Nursing and the VA Ann Arbor Healthcare System and colleagues found factors that can have a big impact on not getting cancer in the first place -- eating fruits and vegetables, drinking in moderation and smoking factors -- were independently associated with survival.
"While there has been a recent emphasis on biomarkers and genes that might be linked to cancer survival, the health habits a person has at diagnosis play a major role in his or her survival," Duffy said in a statement.
The researchers surveyed 504 head and neck cancer patients on five health behaviors: smoking, alcohol use, diet, exercise and sleep. Patients were surveyed every three months for two years then yearly after that.
The study, published in the the Journal of Clinical Oncology, found smoking was the biggest predictor of survival, with current smokers having the shortest survival. Problem drinking and low fruit intake were also associated with worse survival, although vegetable intake wasn't. Lack of exercise also appears to decrease survival.
"Health behaviors are only sporadically addressed in busy oncology clinics where the major focus is on surgery, chemotherapy or radiation," Duffy said. "Addressing health behaviors may enhance the survival advantage offered by these treatments."
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