Those same healthy habits that help prevent other serious diseases -- like diabetes and heart disease -- also help lower your risk of developing many of the common cancers and help you reach that sometimes elusive goal of “wellness.”
There was a time in the history of medicine when wellness was simply the absence of disease. As a society, we used to habitually practice health-generating behaviors. We walked everywhere and burned calories earning our bread—and as “bread” was relatively scarce, we ate reasonable portions and remained lean.
Today, very few of us earn our bread by the sweat of our brow. Food is outrageously plentiful and excessively laden with fat, sugar, and salt. As a result, the lack of wellness in most people reflects the absence of healthy behaviors, not the presence of disease.
So in a society where technology has largely forced us to have to “work” on being healthy, what are the steps to a lifestyle that will reduce our risk of chronic diseases, cancer among them? Studies and data point to four areas:
- Do not smoke.
- Eat a healthy diet.
- Exercise regularly.
- Get a good night's sleep.
Smoking: a clear road to cancer
Smoking is responsible for approximately 30 percent of all cancer-related deaths in the United States, according to the American Cancer Society. The National Institutes of Health reports that it is the strongest risk factor for lung cancer, increasing risk 10- to 20-fold.
If you smoke now, the best action you can take is to focus all of your energy on kicking a very difficult habit. Talk to your physician about the things you can do to quit smoking. While you are at it, do everything you can to convince the young people in your life never to start using tobacco.
Smoking is a primary cause of lung cancer, head and neck cancer, and bladder cancer, and quitting smoking is the biggest cancer-prevention step you can take. What's more, smoking is also a major contributor to the biggest killer of men and woman—heart disease.
Obesity: why you need to keep your weight down
Obesity has been estimated to cause 20 percent of all cancers, according to a study last year in Oncologist. How weight affects cancer risk is not well known and likely varies by the type of cancer.
The data for specific diet elements, such as red meat , soy, and vitamins D, E, and C and selenium, for example, show some cancer risk and prevention possibilities, but the associations are not strong in an otherwise well-nourished Western population.
Simply eating a healthy diet with a goal of reducing your body mass index to a healthy level is a better strategy for cancer prevention. Some specific tips:
- Try fruits and vegetables at every meal.
- Watch your portions.
- Substitute water for sugary drinks.
- Avoid late-night snacking.
- Pay attention to your calorie intake—honestly. Write down everything you eat and drink for a week and see how many calories you are actually taking in each day.
Exercise: get up and get moving
A Harvard report on cancer prevention said that a sedentary lifestyle is associated with five percent of cancer deaths. Exercise has numerous benefits for your overall well being—and it appears that it can decrease your cancer risk. Aim to exercise at least four times per week for at least 30 minutes at a pace that raises your heart rate and has you breathing a little more rapidly.
Be creative if you have back or joint problems, find something you can enjoy and a buddy to do it with you, and seek the help of gym personnel or a personal trainer if you have never exercised successfully before. Start slowly but challenge yourself to do more each week until you reach a goal.
Here’s another tip: Look online for a calculator that can show you how many calories you burn each day now—and see how many more you can add to that with a fitness plan.
Sleep: the neglected health tonic
Get a good night's sleep. Seems simple enough, but sleep is frequently neglected in our fast-paced society and is so incredibly important to our overall health. I know of no specific data on sleep for cancer prevention, but the first three suggestions are much easier to do when you're not fatigued because of sleep deprivation.
Very few people can be well rested on chronically less than seven hours of sleep per night, and this tiredness leads to neglect of other healthful behaviors. Are you too tired to exercise? Do you seek energy bursts in sugary foods or highly caffeinated beverages that then prevent you from falling asleep at a reasonable hour?
Some tips for a good night's sleep:
- get a calming bedtime routine
- avoid caffeinated beverages in the evening
- refrain from exciting or disturbing TV or books before bed
- try to set aside your worries before you get into bed and let them wait until morning.
A good night’s sleep sets the table for other healthy behaviors that will help reduce your cancer risk… and help you feel refreshed and energized at the same time!
By Elizabeth Horenkamp, MD
Elizabeth Horenkamp, MD, is a physician with Hematology/Oncology Medical Specialists, a Lancaster General Medical Group practice that provides comprehensive care for patients diagnosed with blood disorders and cancer. Dr. Horenkamp is a graduate of University of Pennsylvania Medical School and is board certified in medical oncology, medical hematology and internal medicine.