Lifestyle choices and the cancer connection: what you should know

Almost half of all Americans suffer from chronic health ailments; among these, cancer is second leading cause of death, after heart disease. Although screening and treatment options, as well as a reduction in smoking, have improved the survival odds for many different kinds of cancer, including the 4 most common kinds: lung, colorectal, breast, and lung, the numbers are still high. Over 595,000 Americans are expected to die from cancer in 2016, which translates into over 1600 people per day. In the UK, the latest figures (2014) put cancer deaths at 163,444; in Canada, the estimated figures for 2016 are 78,800 deaths; in Australia, the estimates for 2017 are 46,880 deaths; and there were 8316 deaths in Ireland in 2012. Globally, deaths from cancer totaled 8.2 million in 2012, according to the International Agency for Research on Cancer.

These numbers don’t even reveal the numbers of new cancer cases that have been diagnosed each year, or the demographics of the people who are diagnosed with and/or die from cancer. Some say that the numbers of new cancer cases worldwide are rising, while others say they remain steady. It can all get very confusing when you begin to delve into the data.

The one thing that is certain, though, is that too many people continue to develop, suffer from, and die from cancer and cancer-related causes each year.

There is a widespread belief that everyone already has cancer cells inside them, and that if you live long enough, you’ll eventually develop cancer. There is some truth in this statement: all of us have cells that might be described as “pre-cancerous”, if you understand this to mean abnormal cells whose DNA is damaged. As long as there are few of these types of cells in the body and they are kept under control by a healthy immune system, the cancer risk is low. When they begin replicating in earnest, a tumor forms – if it is malignant, it can spread to other parts of the body and cause other tumors to develop.

The things that trigger these cancerous cells to metastasize are varied: genetics play a small part for most people, but lifestyle choices and exposure to cancer-causing chemicals definitively account for the development of malignant cancers. These chemicals include tobacco and secondhand smoke, alcohol (when used in excess), and certain toxic chemicals that are routinely used in household cleaners, personal care products, and the food we eat every day.

There's no foolproof way to completely eliminate your risk of developing cancer, but there are several ways to decrease your chances. These begin with making the kinds of lifestyle choices that will ensure that your immune system has the strength it needs to keep your body healthy and fight disease effectively.

Avoiding toxic chemicals that have been definitively linked with cancer (some of which have been discussed in detail in my Little Guidebook) is made easier if you know what to look for. The list of “known” and “probable” carcinogens (these terms refer to classifications that were developed by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) and are the most widely used system) is long. And yet, not all carcinogens will definitely cause cancer in each person who is exposed to it. Some chemicals will cause cancer in people of a certain genetic makeup, while others will cause cancer after an exposure to large amounts of it, or alternatively, to small amounts. Occupations in which workers have a high risk of developing cancer from the chemicals they work with include conventional agriculture workers (who are regularly exposed to synthetic pesticides and herbicides), and people who work with chemicals like arsenic, formaldehyde, radon, silica, and benzene.

While regulatory agencies and national public health institutes routinely claim that small amounts of exposure to known and probable carcinogens will not likely result in human health problems, including cancer, the truth is, people are exposed to small amounts of multiple harmful chemicals every day, all day. Whether or not a person’s natural defenses are enough to guard against diseases like cancer therefore becomes a guessing game. The less your body’s natural defenses are equipped to battle the forces that can deteriorate and destroy your health, the more likely you will develop a disease like cancer.

Reducing stress is also known to be an effective means of promoting wellness and enabling your body to defend itself against an onslaught of disease-causing agents, though most people (especially those in urban environments) do not take steps to reduce the stress they experience on a daily basis. There are 3 things you can do every day to help reduce stress, and they only take a few minutes a day.

First, take 5 minutes every day when you wake up in the morning to meditate on what you want to accomplish, or how you’d like your day to go. Don’t focus on all the things that are demanding your time and attention. Instead, create a scenario in your mind of how your day would ideally be, singling out a few (1-3) things you’d like to accomplish during the day. These don’t have to be work related, but if they are, imagine yourself engaging in those activities.

Second, take 5-10 minutes each day to stop and breathe. I mean that literally: close your eyes and focus on the breath coming in and out of your nose. You might try breathing in your nose and out of your mouth. If errant thoughts enter your mind during those 5-10 minutes, just let them come, and notice them pass. Don’t try to fight them, or be worried that you are getting “distracted” from your breath. Just bring your focus back to your breath if it temporarily wanders. The more you do this, the easier it becomes each day.

Photo via VisualHunt.com

Photo via VisualHunt.com

Third, take 15 minutes at night to stretch your arms, legs, neck, or wherever you feel the most physical tension. Be mindful of how your body feels, and you’ll begin to develop a greater awareness, over time, of when your body is beginning to feel run down, sick, or ill-at-ease. It’s hard to ignore these feelings when you take time each day to reconnect with your physical self, and you’ll find yourself more encouraged to take care of yourself when you feel your body beginning to wear down with exhaustion or illness.

Set an alarm (or several alarms) to do these things each day if you can’t remember, until you get used to the new schedule. Once you get into the habit, it’s easy to engage in these activities every day without having to remind yourself.

Eat real food. Other things you can do to reduce your cancer risk and boost your immune system include eating whole foods and cutting way down on your consumption of packaged, over-processed foods; taking vitamins and supplements, including vitamin D (which also plays a role in combating diabetes), iron, zinc, and selenium (which also combat free radicals). Learning how to do this, if you haven’t already been eating healthy, or learning how to incorporate more healthy food into your diet doesn’t need to be hard, or expensive. You can learn more about this and other ways to create a healthier lifestyle for your family in the forthcoming book, Go Green without Going Broke.

Seek healthy social relationships. Maintaining, or cultivating, healthy relationships and a social network of people (in real time, not online) that support you and can help you reach your highest potential. Cutting out people from your life who make you feel bad about yourself, or who constantly drag you down with their problems, is key do developing healthy relationships. The health risks for people who do not have offline social networks (especially older, single men) increase dramatically, meaning that you are more likely to suffer from mental and physical ailments like clinical depression and cardiovascular disease. Nowadays, offline social relationships are easier to cultivate through online resources like https://www.meetup.com/, which serves as a portal for groups that engage in a wide variety of activities. Don’t see anything you like? Start your own meetup group.

 

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