Cancer as a lifestyle disease

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by JUDITH REYNOLDS

Last year I wrote a series of pieces for breast cancer awareness month where I described some of my experiences of being diagnosed with and treated for breast cancer. This year I will be writing about cancer again during the month of October but I am shifting the focus this time to cancer prevention.

Although the specific cancer I had was breast cancer, I will be writing about preventing cancers rather than any specific type of cancer. And the same things that help to prevent cancer can also help reduce the chances of cancer recurrence for people like me who have already had cancer.

I don’t think cancer can be prevented completely. I doubt we could live in a world without any cancer. But I do believe that if we lived differently there would be different cancer rates. Part of the evidence for this comes from different cancer rates in different parts of the world. Australia has very high cancer rates, particularly of breast cancer and melanoma. Israel’s cancer rates are about half those of Australia.

Differences in cancer rates could be partly due to genetics, though both Australia and Israel are countries of immigrants, but the typical pattern is that when people move from a place that has a low cancer (or other disease) rate to another part of the world, they tend to develop diseases at the same rate as the people they are living among. This suggests that lifestyle has a big effect on rates of disease, including cancer rates.

There is also evidence that lifestyle changes in people who have been diagnosed with cancer can affect the course of the disease. In the book ‘Anti-Cancer Living: The six-step solution to transform your health’ by Cohen and Jeffries, there is information about two different studies that supports this idea.

One study was done on men with early stage prostate cancer who were at the ‘watch and wait’ stage. One group of men were taught and supported through a range of lifestyle changes. The other group just carried on as normal. PSA (prostate-specific antigen) levels went up slightly among the men who didn’t make any changes. But PSA levels for the group of men who had made lifestyle changes actually went down. The levels didn’t just not go up, they went down. And further research revealed that the more the men had made changes and stuck with them, the more their PSA levels had gone down.

Another study was done with women who had stage II or stage III breast cancer. After treatment for the cancer, one group of women received information about lifestyle changes and support implementing those changes. The other group carried on as usual. The group that had made lifestyle changes were less likely to have a cancer recurrence and they had higher survival rates.

So what were these ‘magical’ lifestyle changes? They included things like changes in diet, giving up smoking, regular exercise, learning to deal with stress and maintaining social support. Nothing very magical at all. Just everyday things that anyone can do.

The three main areas that I have made changes in, since I completed treatment in 2017 are nutrition (which for me includes focusing on gut health), stress resilience and reducing toxic load. The people in the two studies don’t seem to have been taught about reducing toxins (apart from cigarettes) but ‘avoid environmental toxins’ is one of the ‘mix of six’ advocated in the Anti-Cancer Living book and in most other books on improving general health.

We’re more used to thinking of things like diabetes and heart disease as lifestyle diseases. But an argument can be made that cancer is, to some extent at least, also a lifestyle disease. Genetics certainly plays a part in some cancers. But researchers are now learning about ‘Epigenetics’ which means ‘above genetics’. They are looking at what causes genes to behave in certain ways. We can’t change the genes in our bodies but our lifestyles affect what those genes actually do.

  • Judith Reynolds runs health workshops under the name, Eloquent Bodies. You can contact her at judith@eloquentbodies.co.za or 072 858 6895.
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