In our affluent Western world, cancer has become the second most frequent cause of death. Just ask around and you will realize, almost everybody you know either suffered from cancer, or knows people who suffer from it.
With regards to your own personal health and future fate, it is always a good idea to look at your parents, siblings, and other family members, and map out their diseases. By doing so, you will get a fairly accurate picture of your genetic predispositions, which will help you make better health and lifestyle decisions. Do you have a history of cancer in your family? Is one of your first-degree relatives suffering from, or has recovered from, cancer? In that case you might want to educate yourself and see what steps you can take to secure a disease-free future for yourself.
A key point to remember, is that your genes do not necessarily dictate what your future health will look like. There is a solid body of scientific evidence that shows that our genes are responsible for approximately 15%-30% of our fate. The other 70% or more are determined by environmental factors, which in most cases depend on our regular day-to-day decisions and habits.
So, let us take a closer look at two main areas of life, over which we do have control. Based on your lifestyle choices, you can help turn off cancer causing genes, while simultaneously switching on cancer fighting and health promoting ones.
Two major mechanisms render us less susceptible to the formation of cancer cells in our body: one is having a strong immune system, and the other is maintaining an anti-inflammatory environment inside of us.
In order to support both, one can make wise diet choices regarding the types of foods and preparation methods used. It is known for instance that a diet rich in antioxidants promotes a healthy anti-cancer internal environment. Such a diet is usually based on plants and on whole foods. Enriching your diet with different kinds of vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts, seeds, whole grains and leafy greens, boosts immunity and simultaneously reduces inflammation.
Increasing your fiber intake is also of importance for the prevention of cancer, specifically for cancers of the digestive system, such as stomach and colon cancers. The recommended amount of approximately 40 grams of fiber each day, can be reached quite easily with a whole foods and primarily plant-based diet.
The way food is prepared plays an important role as well. There are harmful cancer-causing substances called AGEs (advanced glycation end products) that are released into food during the preparation process. Grilling, baking and frying release much more AGEs into our food, since they are formed at temperatures above 120 Celsius. Choosing instead low-temperature methods of cooking such as boiling, stewing and broiling (i.e. preparing food in the oven with added water for extra moisture) is therefore more sensible.
Needless to say, foods with saturated fats (mostly from animal sources), processed sugars, processed meat, red meat, and highly processed foods, contribute to the creation of a ‘cancer-friendly’ internal environment in the body. It is a good idea to refrain from them completely.
Physical activity is a simple, yet powerful way to prevent cancer. Luckily, one does not necessarily need to be a top athlete to engage in the kind of activities that reduce inflammation and enhance immunity.
A 2007 study with more than 1400 women with breast cancer, found that eating as little as five servings of vegetables and fruits per day (where a serving means eating an apple, a banana, a cucumber, a tomato, a handful of berries, etc.) and exercising moderately for 180 minutes per week (walking is considered a moderate physical activity) reduces the risk of dying by 50% (!). Physical activity does not only help in the treatment of cancer and overcoming it, but also reduces the risk of ever getting it in the first place. It is well established that regular moderate exercise helps in the prevention of common cancers like breast and colon cancer.
While receiving conventional cancer treatment, people can also reap benefits from engaging in moderate forms of exercise. It helps to improve circulation and the fitness level of the heart and lungs, while also maintaining muscle tone, which are important factors in maintaining the body’s resilience and stamina. It is also a great aid in alleviating symptoms and enhancing the quality of life during treatments.
As we can see, both nutrition and exercise are simple, yet powerful ways to prevent some of the most common cancers of our time. So, what happens when we combine them?
Dr. Dean Ornish and colleagues put this question to the test, using an intensive multi-layered lifestyle intervention program with early-stage prostate cancer patients. Their results, published in prestigious peer-reviewed medical journals, showed that a combined program composed of plant-based nutrition, physical exercise, stress reduction with yoga and mindfulness meditations, smoking cessation and attending social support groups, helped in stopping and reversing the cancer’s progression. They have also demonstrated the impacts of this lifestyle medicine intervention on genes: more than 500 harmful genes were shut off in the men who followed the program.
These findings, and many more following along the same lines, show us that even though we may continue to use medications, applying several lifestyle medicine strategies simultaneously, might greatly help in improving our health and recovering from disease, and, in some cases, they can actually replace standard therapies. This is especially true when it comes to prevention. Becoming more informed and aware of the simple, yet powerful steps that we can take to prevent the disease from ever developing, puts the power over our destiny back in our own hands. Having such power, and using it wisely, is in itself a major part of being truly and holistically healthy.