Q: I have cancer on both sides of my family. What really works in terms of reducing my risk for developing cancer? -Fran D., St. Louis
Cancer is the second-leading cause of premature death (after heart disease) in the United States, and sophisticated new diagnostic and treatment strategies do not seem to be keeping pace with increased incidences. Understanding a little bit about why cancer is increasingly prevalent can help you formulate a plan for its prevention.
Basic Facts About Cancer
In a healthy person, cells divide, grow, and replace themselves in an orderly way. When the genes that control the normal cell functions fail, the cell becomes sick and starts growing out of control. When these uncontrolled cells develop into a mass, we call that a tumor. The cells get sick because of aging, improper nutrition, stress, or toxic burden. Some of these tumors eventually stop growing, and these are considered benign (harmless). Malignant (cancerous) tumors, however, continue to grow and ultimately invade healthy tissues, use up the body's nutritional stores, and disrupt normal body functioning.
Most experts think that cancer starts with a single damaged cell. Usually it takes several hits on this cell before a malignant tumor is generated. "Hits" might be:
- Man-made chemicals, such as pharmaceutical drugs, aromatic hydrocarbons, flame retardants, food preservatives, pesticides, fertilizers, and plastic in all its various forms
- Natural poisons, including arsenic and other heavy metals such as mercury, tin, and cadmium
- Physical trauma from injury, surgery, or a burn-including sunburn
- Emotional. There is compelling evidence that cancer incidence is increased by intense, chronic stress
Genetics play a small role in the likelihood of acquiring cancer, but the bulk of the risk lies in environmental exposures. More and more, the average American is exposed daily to harmful chemicals, industrial carcinogens, and solvents, including cleaning solutions, cosmetics, pesticides, plastics, and processed food.
Reducing this toxic burden is possible-if we get involved right now at a grass-roots level. There are numerous ways you can contribute to making the planet less toxic. At a personal level, you can minimize your use of plastics by using canvas bags for shopping. Recycle whatever you can. Take care of your car, computer, and fax machine, and use them until the bitter end.
Avoid buying personal-care products that contain harmful chemicals. Avoid tampons and menstrual pads that use bleached material. And read labels. If you see long words that have syllables such as butyl, cetyl, ethyl, or propyl, ask yourself if you really need this product. And try to avoid dumping toxic chemicals into your mouth (sodas), onto your head (many shampoos and conditioners), into your lungs (tobacco), or into the water supply (dish/laundry detergents containing phosphates).
Readily Modified Risk Factors
Environmental pollution is the number-one risk factor, but you can also reduce your cancer risk by controlling your diet and your level of physical activity. Women who gain weight at menopause are more vulnerable to breast cancer. Women who don't exercise are more likely to acquire breast, colon, and stomach cancers. Excessive alcohol intake is another risk factor for breast, colon, liver, pancreatic, and throat cancers. Women are advised to hold their consumption of alcoholic beverages down to two ounces daily. And don't save up for the weekend-binge drinking confers the highest risk.
As for diet, 10 top cancer-fighting (and preventing) foods are:
- Beans (dried beans, lentils, split peas)
- Carotenoid-rich fruits and vegetables that are deep green, orange, red, and yellow
- Cruciferous vegetables-broccoli, cabbage, kale, bok choy, cauliflower
- Fiber-rich foods-beans, fruits, vegetables, and whole grains
- Fish-coldwater varieties, such as salmon, trout, and snapper
- Green tea
- Mushrooms-the medicinal varieties include maitake, reishi, and shiitake
- Nuts and seeds
- Yogurt (organic, from grass-fed animals).
Supplements can also help reduce cancer risk. My favorites:
- Green tea or matcha powder, 1 tsp. daily
- Melatonin, 1-3 mg at bedtime
- Vitamin D3. Check your serum levels and dose to achieve 60-90 ng/mL
- Medicinal mushrooms. These can be taken in tincture or capsule form, but consult with a knowledgeable healthcare provider to get details on source and dosing.
Big Industry tampering with our food supply has devastated the innate good health of millions. Breast milk will always be better than any infant formula. Whole grains are infinitely more nutritious (and delicious) than refined flour products. As my nutrition teacher said, try to eat only foods that would rot, but eat them before they do.
The bottom line with cancer prevention is to avoid chemicals, drink plenty of pure water, eat colorful foods, never eat white flour or white sugar, get enough sleep, and exercise daily. With just these few simple lifestyle changes, you can greatly reduce your chances of getting cancer-and improve all other areas of your health, as well.
Major Warning Signs of Cancer
- Any persistent change in bowel habits or bladder function, such as seeing blood in your urine or stool, or experiencing pain from urination or bowel movements.
- Any sore that does not heal. If you have a patch of skin that stays chronically irritated, oozy, or abnormally itchy, please check with a doctor.
- Unusual bleeding or discharge. Please note, however, that an occasional weird or "off-cycle" period is very likely normal; your menstrual cycle may just be disrupted from changes in diet, stress, or travel.
- A thickening or lump in the breast, or elsewhere. A tumor is tissue growth that is out of control. Normal tissue will grow until the wound is filled in, or the skin damage has been repaired. Cancerous growth is not normal, and doesn't stop. Lumps and bumps don't always mean cancer, but they should be evaluated, especially if they are actively growing.
- Persistent indigestion or difficulty swallowing. Eating, swallowing, digestion, and bowel movements are not supposed to be painful or difficult.
- Recent change in the size or color of a wart or mole.
- A nagging, hacking cough or hoarseness that lasts more than several weeks. These are possible markers for lung or throat cancer.
- Unintentional weight loss of 10 lbs. or more over a two-month period.