Alberta Cancer Foundation

Ask the Expert: Vacation preparation and making a diet change

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Q: I’m planning to take a tropical vacation this winter and want to make sure I don’t get sick. How far in advance should I start considering my travel health precautions?

A: Every winter, around two million Canadians head south in the pursuit of beautiful beaches and warm weather. But according to Silvina Mema, a public health and preventive medicine resident with Alberta Health Services, up to 75 per cent of those travellers will develop a travel-related illness. “Infections, injuries and threats to personal safety are common problems abroad,” she says. “Sick travellers can even bring infections back home when they return to Canada, and expose family and friends in their community to these health risks.”

Mema says the key to staying healthy during your trip is preparation. “Ideally, you should start planning your health precautions at least six weeks prior to departure to give time for your immune system to respond to vaccines,” she says.

Start by discussing your travel plans with your family physician, or by scheduling a visit with a travel health clinic for an individualized pre-travel consultation. “Your health provider will determine your risks based on your health background and the details of your trip,” says Mema. “They may recommend additional immunizations and other precautions to help you stay healthy and safe.” Keep in mind that, though it’s an added step in your pre-trip plans, understanding health risks and choosing precautions are important moves to make before your next trip.

Have a fun and safe vacation!

Q: I’d like to become a vegan but know that I shouldn’t dive right into a new meal plan. What advice do you have for making a big diet change?

A: Deciding to become vegan, or follow a strict plant-based diet, is a personal choice which may be made for any number of reasons. “Before beginning any new diet, it’s important to consider how much change will be required, how committed you are to the change and the health consequences of making the change,” says Shannon Mackenzie, from the College of Dietitians of Alberta. A plant-based diet offers many healthy benefits, but changing from a traditional diet to a strict vegan one is a big transition that should be taken in mindful steps. “A strict vegan diet can be limiting in entire food groups and certain macro- and micronutrients, like protein, omega-3 fats, iron, zinc, calcium, vitamin D and B12. Therefore extra planning may be required to do it well.”

Mackenzie recommends seeking the input of a registered dietitian who can help you make safe and manageable changes while maintaining a nutritionally balanced diet. “They have the science-based food, nutrition and health background to help you make sound nutrition decisions and changes that fit your unique health needs and lifestyle,” she adds. To find a registered dietitian, visit www.collegeofdietitians.ab.ca.

Q: I hear people talking about their five-year anniversary of being cancer-free. Why is this benchmark significant?

Peter Craighead, medical director at the Tom Baker Cancer Centre, puts this cancer-versary in perspective. “Celebrating after a five-year anniversary of your cancer being in remission is made after the risk of your cancer coming back has been determined to be low. For most cancers the early years after completion of treatment are associated with the highest risk of cancer recurrence,” he says. “After five years, it generally means that the risk of recurrence is so low that we don’t see the benefit to you continuing to see us on a regular basis,” he adds, noting, “Although many patients are encouraged to move back to their family doctors for followup, there are several reasons why we may not allow you to be discharged away from our clinics after five years.” For those with aggressive cancers where statistical evidence cites a risk of the cancer returning, Craighead suggests keeping an eye on the situation and still consulting your oncologist or attending cancer clinics for a few more years.

There are a couple of other exceptions to cancer survivors getting a green light. “If you were on an experimental treatment and we needed your clinical information to ensure the treatment didn’t have bad side effects, then we would keep you attending,” he explains. “And if you lived somewhere where skilled health care supports were not available, we would keep you attending our clinics.”

While this milestone is worth acknowledging, it is never a guarantee the cancer will not return, he points out. “It’s obviously important to identify that even after five years, when the risk has come down, that there is still a small chance of the cancer coming back.”

Ask our experts questions about general health, cancer prevention and treatment. Please submit them via email. Remember, this advice is never a substitute for talking directly to your family doctor.