There is probably no potential diagnosis that people dread getting more than cancer. Almost everyone knows someone who currently is undergoing treatment for cancer or who has died from the illness. According to the National Institutes of Health an estimated 1,685,210 new cases of cancer will be diagnosed in the United States and 595,690 people will die from the disease each year.
Since it is so common, it would be in our best interests in doing everything we can to help prevent the illness. Regular screening tests like pap smears, mammograms, and colonoscopies are helpful to catch it early to give you the best chance of successful treatment. But we should also be doing other things based on current research to stop it before it even gets to this stage.
A review article published in the September 2008 issue of Pharmaceutical Research, estimated that 90-95% of cancers have their roots in environmental exposures and lifestyle choices. The other 5-10% are attributable to genetic abnormalities that predispose someone to cancer (such as BRCA mutations that lead to nearly all women in certain families to get breast cancer).
According to the article,
The evidence indicates that of all cancer-related deaths, almost 25–30% are due to tobacco, as many as 30–35% are linked to diet, about 15–20% are due to infections, and the remaining percentage are due to other factors like radiation, stress, physical activity, environmental pollutants etc.
So what can we do about this? Quite a lot actually. Research continues to give us insight in what can help. And the benefits of these changes goes beyond just cancer prevention and will generally make you healthier, help you get sick less frequently, and make you feel better overall with better energy. Human nature is such that we often will not focus on long-term health prevention, but think about how much better you are also going to feel in the short term and making small changes will reinforce themselves as you look and feel better.
- Avoid processed foods. A journal article published last month in the British Medical Journal found that for a 10% increase in ultra-processed foods in your diet (soda, sugary snack cakes, processed meats and breakfast cereals) your overall cancer risk went up 10% as well. Instead eat more real foods – fruits, veggies, beans, whole grains, nuts/seeds, organic dairy, and wild/grass fed/organic meats. I always like the adage, shop from the outside of the grocery store where the real food is- avoid the middle aisles with processed foods.
- Lose Weight. This one goes hand in hand with number 1 as we often see people who avoid processed foods lose weight. A study from the New England Journal of Medicine in April, 2003, found that of all deaths from cancer in the United States, 14% in men and 20% in women are attributable to excess weight or obesity. If you have struggled to lose weight in the past, talk to one of our licensed naturopathic physicians who have tools that can help.
- Stop Smoking. This one is a no-brainer. If you are still smoking tobacco products, the #1 thing you can do for your health is to stop. We can help you succeed if you are ready to quit.
- Get your Vitamin D levels up. This one is often not discussed, but a study published this month in the British Medical Journal found that having higher blood levels of Vitamin D was found to be protective for all cancers. In a study of over 7000 Japanese individuals followed over 16 years, those with the highest Vitamin D were 22% less likely to develop any cancer, and 50% less likely to develop liver cancer, than those with the lowest levels. It makes sense to get your levels checked through a simple blood test, the 25-OH Vitamin D test (often called VDOH, or just Vitamin D blood test). I generally like to see levels over 60 on this test (normal is 30-150). There is some toxicity possible with Vitamin D, so be aware when supplementing, but most adults in northern latitudes need 4000-6000 iu of Vitamin D3 per day in non-summer months to not be deficient. I have only seen two patients become toxic and they were both taking over 15000 iu per day for over a year when it happened.
- Moderate Alcohol Intake. Alcohol intake above 3 drinks per day is definitely correlated with breast, liver, and colorectal cancers, among others. A woman who drinks more than 4 ½ drinks per day is nearly 1.5x more like to develop breast cancer than a non-drinker. So heavy alcohol intake is definitely problematic, but moderate intake actually may help us live longer. A study of those who live longer than 90 years showed that having 1-2 drinks per day actually made you 18% more likely to live to a longer age. This was even more protective than exercising daily (still a good idea with a 11% increased likelihood of living over 90). According to this article, ¨Researchers report that a long-term survey found moderate coffee consumption, not being obese, moderate exercise — and a drink or two — were common among participants living past age 90.¨
There are others as well, but this is a good starting list. And you don’t have to be perfect overnight. Start making some small changes and get that snowball rolling in the right direction. And again, even if you were never going to get cancer, doing these things will help you be healthier, feel and look better, and help you live to an older age overall.