No one likes to hear the word and no one likes to say the word. As a matter of fact, people say that he or she has “the illness.” It is common to hear the Yiddish expression yena machale. No one certainly wants to hear the diagnosis. We are talking about cancer.
Cancer continues to be the number one or two killer in most industrialized nations. Here in Israel, it is the leading killer and in the United States it is number two behind heart disease.
There are over 100 types of cancer. Although over the last many years, websites of various cancer organizations would describe cancer as a mostly genetic condition, it has been shown that although your genes are involved, it is not more than a 10-12% player in cancer. Many cancers are created by lifestyle behavior, others are not. The cause can be smoking tobacco, poor diet, environmental circumstances, second-hand smoke, obesity and certain infections.
Some studies have shown that we can prevent about 50-60% of cancers and if one isolates the “Western” cancers, meaning colon, prostate, breast and pancreatic cancer, the ability to prevent them goes up to about 80% or so. So far, the emphasis and most research is on curing cancer, but while it has yielded some good, limited results, the bigger picture tells a different story.
I have written in prior articles the old adage that an ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure. When it comes to cancer, it is absolutely true. The American Institute of Cancer Research (AICR) is an organization that has dedicated itself to not only helping cancer patients, but has gathered extensive information on lifestyle, particularly diet, and cancers.
Unlike other cancer organizations, most of their efforts are concentrated on prevention. They are part of the World Health Organization’s Cancer Research Arm. Their third cancer report was released in 2018. Although a lengthy and detailed study, we can deduce 10 behaviors to prevent cancer. I will return to those toward the end of this article.
Many readers have benefited from modern medicine. Looking back, I know that when I was a child, a diagnosis of juvenile leukemia was a death sentence. Today, cancer patients who have stage one and two Hodgkin lymphoma survive 90% of the time. So, in some areas of cancer treatment we have indeed made progress. But from the perspective of public health, we need to do much better.
Dr. T. Colin Campbell is the lead author of The China Study. When released in 1990, The New York Times called it “the most comprehensive large study ever undertaken of the relationship between diet and the risk of developing disease.” Most of Campbell’s focus throughout his illustrious career in nutrition research has been dedicated to cancer. In a paper originally written in 2018 and updated twice since then, he points out the sad facts about the “war” on cancer.
IF YOU are a certain age, you certainly will remember former US president Richard Nixon declaring the war on cancer in 1971. Since then, we continue to throw massive amounts of money into cancer research. However, when we look at the last 50 years of cancer statistics, despite all of the hype of new drugs and methods to get better five-year survival rates, the big picture isn’t so rosy.
Although cancer deaths have declined during the last three decades by close to 20%, much of that has come from prevention, and not necessarily treatment. Unfortunately, new incidences of cancer are actually developing more than ever. As far as finding a cancer cure, we haven’t progressed significantly since Nixon’s war was declared.
A very large analysis of the efficacy of cancer drugs in 2004 showed that they increased five-year survival rates only by 2.1%. Campbell points out that the average cost of developing a cancer drug is between $1.3-1.8b. The cost of cancer treatments per year in the US is more than $200b., and all that to slightly increase a 5-year survival rate.
Even worse, many of the drugs used bring about secondary cancers. Whether that is because they destroy the immune system or for some other reason, like the drugs themselves being mutants, is up for debate. Campbell also points out that at a cancer conference a decade ago in Switzerland, the World Oncology Forum stated that for most forms of cancer “enduring disease-free responses are rare, and cures even rarer.”
We need to desperately change the mindset. The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. Although generally credited to Albert Einstein, that quote probably isn’t. But whoever said it, this is certainly applicable here. For 50+ years we haven’t found the “cure” yet.
Nutrition and lifestyle are very, very powerful tools. Whether we look at Dr. Campbell’s research or those of so many others, we know that even after a cancer diagnosis, one’s chances of survival are greatly enhanced by a strict whole food plant-based diet along with daily exercise. For instance, I once saw a study showing a 50% increase in survival rates for women with breast cancer who exercised.
From the public health standpoint, we must start using more of our resources to teach cancer prevention. This will require changes in our lifestyle habits, but in return, imagine a lifestyle that can be 50% freer of this disease and others too. Imagine a quality of life that gives us the ability to do what we want, when we want it and not have to constantly be going from doctor to doctor, diagnostic test to diagnostic test, and having to take treatments that sometimes, are worse than the disease itself.
HERE ARE those 10 tips we spoke about as recommended by the American Institute of Cancer Research.
- Maintain a healthy weight: Keep your weight within the healthy range and avoid weight gain in adult life. The evidence linking body fat to cancer is overwhelming and has grown stronger over the past decade.
- Be physically active: Be physically active as part of everyday life. Walking more and sitting less is a great way to reduce cancer risk.
- Eat a plant-predominant diet: Make whole grains, vegetables, fruits and pulses (legumes) such as beans and lentils a major part of your normal diet. A healthy pattern of eating and drinking is associated with a lower risk of cancer. The closer you follow these recommendations, the more you reduce the risk of developing cancer.
- Limit the consumption of fast foods and processed foods: Limiting these products helps control calorie intake and makes it easier to maintain a healthy weight. Evidence shows that diets containing greater amounts of fast foods and other processed foods are a cause of overweight and even obesity. Overweight is a cause of 12 cancers.
- Severely limit red and processed meat: This applies especially to processed meats. There is strong evidence that eating red or processed meat are both causes of colorectal cancer.
- Limit sugar-sweetened drinks: Drink mostly water and unsweetened drinks.
- Limit Alcohol! There is strong evidence that drinking alcohol is a cause of six cancers, and even one small glass of alcohol a day can increase the risk of some cancers.
- Don’t use supplements for cancer prevention: Aim to meet your nutritional needs through diet.
- Breastfeed your babies when possible: Breastfeeding is good for both mother and baby. It carries many health benefits, and reduces your chances of developing breast cancer.
- After a cancer diagnosis, follow these same recommendations: Unless otherwise advised, cancer survivors should follow these same recommendations. Always check with your health professional about what is right for you.
We do need to be at war with this disease, but we are going to be a lot better off when we shift the focus. We need more discussion and we need to seek out all the tools available to beat it back. As in the case of all chronic diseases, most of this is in your hands.
Watch the documentary The C Word. Read The China Study second edition. Access the tools from the AICR and educate yourselves because you are in charge of your health. Let’s add to all of these “awareness” campaigns that come up yearly and start an every day, every month, every year prevention campaign. And instead of settling for five-year survival rates, we must aim higher.
No, we can’t wipe it out completely and some rare cancers may not respond to lifestyle intervention, but most will, and even if we prevent 50%, globally that means four million lives are saved every year. The great side effect of adopting these 10 recommendations is a decrease in heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, infectious disease, and more energy and it will “add hours to your day, days to your year and years to your life.”
The writer is a health and wellness coach and personal trainer with 23 years of professional experience. He is director of The Wellness Clinic, and can be reached at email@example.com.