It’s a lot simpler than we think.
At the Union for International Cancer Control’s recent World Cancer Congress,Washington University School of Medicine researcher Graham Colditz, PD, DrPH, reported that more than 50 percent of cancer could be prevented if we implemented certain “lifestyle changes,” including quitting smoking and avoiding obesity.
Seems somewhat obvious, right? Maybe, maybe not. Although we read enough to know that eating right, exercising, and minimizing our exposure to known toxins (cigarettes among them) can limit our risk of developing cancer, most of us don’t necessarily believe it. “Many people are still under the impression that most cancer is genetic,” says Susan B. Lord,MD, a faculty member in Kripalu Healthy Living programs. “But the real figure is actually five percent.” That is, five percent of cancers have strong genetic ties, and the rest are related to environment and lifestyle. This means that the disease is far more preventable than we tend to think it is. In fact, Dr. Colditz estimated that improvement in diet could reduce cancer incidence by 50 percent, and increases in physical activity could reduce cancer incidence by as much as 85 percent, in five to 20 years.
“People think, sure, if I lived a healthy lifestyle that would be better, but ultimately I’m either going to get cancer or I’m not,” says Susan.We know for certain that this isn’t true, at least for most of us. And for those of us who may be predisposed to cancer, living well might help offset that disposition. “We know, for example, that long-term stress may not cause cancer, but it can certainly trigger a predisposition to it,” says Susan, who notes that many patients with cancer she sees were diagnosed within a few years of enduring something “really difficult” in their lives. Stress can also heighten the risk of environmentally-caused cancers by compromising the immune system.
“Cancer is definitely a multifactorial disease,” says Susan. “But it turns out that there’s really quite a lot we can control about it,” which itself is empowering. “Panic is malnourishing to the body and spirit,” says Susan. “Taking charge of our health—and stacking the deck in our favor—is nourishing.” Some practices Susan recommends that you can implement:
Eating right. While in some circles the jury is still out on whether eating organic is truly better for us than eating conventionally grown foods, it’s clear that organic foods expose us to fewer chemicals. What’s more, eating foods as whole as possible—keeping packaged and processed foods to a minimum—increases the levels of nutrients we get from our food while reducing the chances of exposure to toxins that come from processing or packaging.
Being active. Exercise is incredibly important, but not just for warding off obesity (though that’s essential, too). Exercise can strengthen the immune system and help us deal with stress, a known trigger.
Practicing mindfulness and compassion. Mental and emotional stress can set the stage for igniting our genetic vulnerabilities. If you’re a type-A ball of stress, with constant anger or hatred for work or another situation in your life, you’re much more likely to tap into those vulnerabilities. If, instead, you seek to love yourself, maintain a healthy ego, and be compassionate with yourself and other people, your life and health will be in balance. Says Susan, “Do whatever you can to be in harmony with your values and what is meaningful to you.” Plain and simple.