In my personal opinion, cancer is the worst type of disease.
I remember a friend who was diagnosed cancer. She was your typical urban geek : front-end programmer at a popular tech startup, lover of yoga, non-smoker, vegan and commuting by bike to work.
She is the kind of hip person you see around the latest bio-vegan-gluten-free coffee shop. You think they’d keep forever their slim waists and healthy composure.
Yet the worst came.
After rounds of chemotherapy, countless hospital visits and immense suffering, she was bitter. How could a vegan person doing regular exercise get cancer? What did she do? Why did odds work out against her favor?
Did cancer came out of nowhere?
Her words were dark and came as a shock to me. She was usually upbeat. This time, I could not find any words to respond.
For me, families, and friends, cancer is unfair, frustrating and infuriating. There is no plan for success. Motivation and good intent die in front of the relentless progress of the disease.
Should we throw the towel?
I believe not. You could get lung cancer even if you never smoked a cigarette in your whole life, but there is an obvious correlation between smoking (and second hand smoke) and lung cancer. 85% of all lung cancers actually come from smoking. Tobacco is also linked to esophageal cancer (1)
Similarly, a poor diet is linked with colorectal cancer (2). Too much sun can lead to skin cancer. HPV virus is related to cervical cancer (3)
Actually, a study published in Nature argues that only 30% of the risk of getting cancer is due to intrinsic risk factors. That means that even if we cannot change 30% of risks such as our genes, we can take bold steps in reducing cancer risks by changing our behaviour, and influence the remaining 70% odds.
What are these steps?
- Stop smoking. If you still smoke, please stop. It can be done. It won’t kill you to quit, it will kill you not to.
- Avoid sunburn like plague. Even if it’s the winter or if you love the beach, do like the Chinese. Wear protective clothing, seek shade. Apply good sunscreen. Stay away from the scorching sun or reflective surfaces (snow, water, sand)
- Fix your diet. Avoid processed meats. Actually, avoid any form of processed food. Only eat foods that are as natural as possible.
- Stop drinking heavily. Plus your liver and wallet will thank you.
- Add moderate to strenuous exercise to your routine. High intensity exercise can reduce by 50% risk of breast cancer (4), reduce proliferation of prostate and testicular cancer cells. Look into running or strength training. If you can’t, look into non-impact exercise such as swimming or indoor stationary biking.
- Loose the extra if you are overweight or obese. Obesity increases risk for colorectal cancer (2) and also puts you at risk for Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Reaching a healthy weight should be one of your top priorities.
- Fix the stress. If you are prone to anxiety, depression, anger, find a way to get rid of it. Meditate. Channel the stress into exercise or a creative endeavor. Go every week to a yoga class. Get more rest days.
- Stay away from pollution. Living in a polluted urban area? Move. Or add plants to your home, until you find a better place. Stay away from plastics and get as much fresh air as possible.
- Minimize sleep disruption. Say no to jet lag, road pollution noise, blue lights.
Luckily, the barrier to entry is low. You do not have to spend millions. 75 minutes per week of high intensity exercise is possible for everyone. Avoiding processed red meats or smoking means saying no to excess and saying yes to years of healthy living with friends and family.
This does not mean you can assign fault to those who have cancer. Even a person who has excellent health habits can get cancer. There is simply no zero risk, and I doubt there will ever be, even with the billions poured in cancer research. Yet cancer is not out of control, and there’s a damn lot you can do. I challenge you into taking these steps and spread the word to friends and loved ones!
- Environmental Causes of Esophageal Cancer .Gastroenterology Clinics of North America, Volume 38, Issue 1, Pages 27-57 . Farin Kamangar, Wong-Ho Chow, Christian C. Abnet, Sanford M. Dawsey
- Johnson IT, Lund EK. Review article: nutrition, obesity and colorectal cancer. Aliment Pharmacol Ther. 2007 Jul 15;26(2):161-81.
- Bosch FX, Manos MM, Muñoz N, Sherman M, Jansen AM, Peto J, Schiffman MH, Moreno V, Kurman R, Shah KV. Prevalence of human papillomavirus in cervical cancer: a worldwide perspective. International biological study on cervical cancer (IBSCC) Study Group. J Natl Cancer Inst. 1995 Jun 7;87(11):796-802.
- Robert Mittendor, Matthew P. Longnecker, Polly A. Newcomb, Amy T. Dietz, E. Robert Greenberg, Gregory F. Bogdan. Richard W. Clapp. Walter C. Willett. Strenuous physical activity in young adulthood and risk of breast cancer. Cancer Causes & Control July 1995, Volume 6, Issue 4, pp 347–353