There are over 100 different types of cancer, but they all start because abnormal cells grow out of control. All cancers begin in cells, the basic unit of life. Cells grow and divide in a controlled way to produce more cells. When a cell becomes old or damaged, it dies and is replaced with new cells. If this process fails and the genetic material in the cell (DNA) becomes damaged or changed, the cell does not die. When this happens and the cells do not die, the excess cells continue to grow and form excess tissues or tumors. These cells contain the same abnormal DNA as the first cell. Abnormal DNA is inherited in about 10% of all cancers, but most DNA damage occurs while the cell is reproducing or by an effect from something in the environment. It can be as obvious as something like smoking, but many times the reason is not known. Approximately 60% of all cancers can be attributed to lifestyle. Another 2-6% may come from environmental factors. These are both areas that we can change in our lives to improve our chances of preventing cancer by educating ourselves about our health and wellness and being proactive about our physical, mental and spiritual health.
Avoiding an American style diet can decrease one’s chance of getting cancer.
A high fat diet, obesity and lack of exercise can increase the risk of getting cancer. It is interesting to note that most common cancers occur at different rates around the world. Colon, prostate and breast cancer are all common in the U.S. but relatively rare in other areas of the world. It is also interesting to note that when people from other parts of the world move to the U.S., within one generation their cancer rates become almost the same as those who have lived in the U.S. for a long time. And even if they don’t move to the U.S. but adopt an American lifestyle, their risk of cancer increases. It is believed that the American lifestyle of a high fat diet, little exercise and obesity may be the cause.
The Journal of the American Medical Association published a study on the eating habits of patients with colon cancer in the years following their surgical removal of the cancer. For five years following the surgery, those who ate a traditional Western diet had a three fold likelihood of developing a recurrence of the disease when compared to those who ate a diet rich in fruits, vegetables and only a small amount of red meat.
A study done by the American Cancer Society in 2003 found that the heaviest people when compared to the leanest had a significantly increased risk of death from 10 different type of cancer in men and 12 different types of cancer in women. The most extreme examples were liver cancer in men (5 times the risk) and uterine cancer in women (6 times the risk).
Chronic inflammatory conditions can also lead to development of cancer.
One example is that stomach tissue can turn cancerous when it is chronically inflamed from bacteria that cause many stomach ulcers. Fat cells release inflammatory chemicals into the circulation that can stimulate the growth of cancer cells, therefore explaining why obesity increases the risk for developing cancer. Research is ongoing in this area.
So what can you do to improve your chances of remaining healthy?
- Eat organic foods whenever possible. Organic foods are free of pesticides.
- Keep meat to a minimum. Have it compose only 10-15% of your diets and only eat red meat occasionally because of the high content of saturated fat. Avoid all processed meats including hot dogs, sausage, deli meat and salami.
- Eat a large variety of vegetables, fruits and whole grains. Emphasis should be on a plant based diet or a whole foods diet. Whole foods are those that are close to their original form. Eat less processed foods or foods that have been cooked, peeled, mixed with other ingredients and stripped of their nutrients or altered after they come out of the ground.
- Increase the fiber content of your diet by eating grains, fruits and vegetables. Use brown rice instead of white rice. Eat beans such as black beans, lentils or chick peas.
- Don’t use saturated and trans fats products. These are found mostly in red meat, whole milk dairy products and eggs. The good fats, unsaturated fats, come from plant sources such as olive oil, canola oil, nuts and avocados. Focus on Omega-3 fatty acids such as salmon, tuna and flax seeds.
- Avoid alcohol abuse or alcohol all together.
Minimizing stress may decrease ones chance of acquiring cancer.
Stress is an inflammatory condition, and chronic inflammatory conditions wear down the immune system. In an earlier article, “Living with Stress“, I present many ways we can alleviate stress in our lives. Many of these solutions range from exercising to practicing spirituality.
Exercise, in particular, has been shown to play a role in reducing stress and thus the risk for cancer.
The Nurses Health Study showed that women who had one or more hours of moderate exercise daily had a 30% lower risk of colon cancer. It has also been shown to lower the risk of breast cancer. Regular moderate exercise lowers the levels of cancer promoting markers in our blood. Get moderate exercise as many days as possible.
Reducing sun exposure is another way to prevent skin cancer.
Melanoma, a deadly form of skin cancer, is related to overexposure to the sun.
Environmental Factors that affect our health and wellness
The National Institute of Health has classified 54 compounds as human carcinogens. The highest exposures occur in an occupational setting, but there are everyday compounds that we are exposed to that may lead to cancer. Some of these compounds include radon, arsenic, asbestos, hexavalent chromium, aflatoxins, benzene, formaldehyde and vinyl chloride.
And, of course, there is tobacco use. Tobacco use has been shown to be responsible for up to 30% of all cancers.
So what can you do to improve the space you live and work in?
You can introduce plants in the home or the office, for example. Plants remove many toxins within the air. In the article “10 Plants We Need in the Home” by Bianca Beneby, a list of these plants is given along with the toxins they remove.
Also avoid cigarette or tobacco smoke.
Although cancer affects half of all men and one third of all women in their lifetime,we can be proactive in order to decrease our risk. Prevention is better than cure. Take responsibility for your health and wellness.