What Does Cancer Prevention Really Mean?
In the past few months, I have had more phone calls from people I love asking for advice about cancer (and diabetes and heart disease) than I care to think about. People are losing their health at younger and younger ages. People who considered themselves healthy are struggling.
I am particularly raw about it right now, I have to confess, so please excuse my passion.
I have started saying that I would be happy with one day without bad news, not a week, just…one…day.
So of course, it got me to thinking. What does cancer prevention mean in our modern world?
It’s said that we control so little of our environment and I guess on a large climate change scale that may be true. But day to day, we control a lot. We control how much packaging we use, especially plastic. We control the cleaning products we use. We control how much we drive. We control the cookware we prepare food in. We control the quality of ingredients we use in our meals, from salt and oil to vegetables and fruit. We control how much we eat and whether or not we hit the gym or skip it yet again.
In the end, there’s a lot we can do to prevent disease. We all know that most heart disease and Type 2 diabetes is preventable, but cancer? Really?
When I was diagnosed with cancer 35 years ago, I was told by a wise teacher of mine that if I took responsibility for my condition, I would be able to cross the finish line and heal. I left him enraged. What did he think? Did he think I woke up one morning at the tender age of 26 and said to the heavens, “Life is grand; how about cancer to liven things up?”
Of course he didn’t. He wanted me to reflect on what I had done in my life that had contributed to my…situation. When I did, I came to, what for me was a startling conclusion. I had unconsciously contributed to my current health crisis and I could, if I woke up and became proactive, change my current status from cancer victim to cancer survivor.
I adopted a vegan macrobiotic diet and in 14 months, I was declared cancer-free. It was a struggle riddled with ups and downs, in and out of remission at first. Then I stabilized and thrived. When I am lecturing about natural health, this is the spot where people applaud. I am never sure why: because I was so out of touch I created cancer in my body? Or because I woke up, did the work and healed my body and life. Maybe both.
We live in interesting times, as the ancient Chinese proverb wishes on us. We are challenged daily by assaults on our senses from advertising, television news and social media. Our food is compromised; we are constantly being hoodwinked by corporate greed trying to sell us more and more junk food and stuff we don’t need. Even basic human civility is in danger of becoming extinct. Our poor immune systems are as overworked and under-paid as a fast food worker, making fear and anxiety the order of the day.
How the heck are we supposed to prevent cancer in all this…chaos that is modern life?
Breathe, my loves. I’ll share with you what I know from my own experience, which is always my best teacher.
Some of these tips we know like we know our names. They’re as obvious as the nose on your face, but let’s talk about them since some of us are still asleep at the wheel.
Skip tobacco in all forms, including e-cigarettes and second-hand smoke. I know; I know; who would still smoke? And yet…we see them every day: people who look smart and clever consciously taking smoke, tar and nicotine into their lungs.
Exercise regularly…and vigorously. Physical exertion has been linked to a reduced risk of colon cancer and can even help reduce the risk of prostate and breast cancer. You’re not necessarily working out to lose weight. You’re working out to stay strong, increase cardio endurance, build muscle, reduce body fat and keep your bones strong. And here’s the interesting part: exercise will help protect you from cancer even if you don’t lose an ounce as you train your body.
But it’s important to work toward your body’s ideal weight. It may be that not all of us are a size 2, but we can all be fit and live our lives at the weight that’s most natural to us, based on our genetics and ancestry.
Meditate. Take a few minutes out of each day to reflect and breathe deeply; to think about things, putting the stress of the day in perspective. I practice qigong twice daily, morning and night. I started it to alleviate back pain and have continued it because it’s my lifeline to serenity. I never start or end a day without my few minutes of meditative movement.
Keep booze to a minimum. I’ve heard all the stories: wine is good for us; take 1-2 glasses of wine a day. I’ve read all about resveratrol and it’s antioxidant benefits, but between you and me, if you’re drinking 1-2 glasses of wine daily, that’s a lot of alcohol for our wee livers to process. Save that lovely glass (of whatever…) for a special occasion or a weekend party when you want a treat. Alcohol in excess increases the risk of cancers of the mouth, the larynx, esophagus, liver and colon. Yikes!
Stay as far from chemicals as you reasonably and possibly can. From medical imaging (only when absolutely necessary…) to the ultraviolet radiation of the sun to hair dye, packaging, food additives and preservatives, pesticides and herbicides on food and on our lawns. Try to stay away from industrial and environmental toxins like asbestos, benzene and PCB’s (polychlorinated byphenyls).
Make sure you get enough vitamin D. Yup, the sunshine vitamin. Most experts are recommending 800 to 1000 IU’s daily which is super-challenging to get without taking a supplement. Evidence suggests that this essential vitamin may help reduce the risk of prostate, colon and other malignancies.
And now for the part you’ve all been waiting for…the role food plays in our bid to prevent cancer. I could never even begin to stress the importance of every morsel you put in your mouth in creating your wellness. And before you freak out; this is not meant to make you a neurotic wreck afraid to eat anything at all. This information is meant to empower you to create wellness, not feed illness.
People have often called me a health nut, to which I reply by asking: “So are you a sickness nut?”
Eating properly doesn’t mean a life where you grimly endure a life of boiled tofu and sprouts. They’re lovely together but there’s more to life. I always say that Mother Nature made eating sexy so we would do it and no one…and I mean no one is better at taking the sexy out of eating than some well-meaning preachy wellness “gurus.”
For me, when I think of healthy eating at its best, I think of my heritage, my Mediterranean heritage. Whole grains, beans, lots and lots of vegetables prepared in a variety of ways, some fruits, nuts and seeds with a light use of healthy fats like extra virgin olive oil. I also give a nod to my beloved macrobiotic roots with ingredients like miso and sea vegetables to balance my nutrition and understand my condition. And healthy sweets made by me with low glycemic unprocessed sweeteners and sprouted flour round out my diet. It’s rich and satisfying.
Plant-passionate eating is just that, passionate. We are passionate about enjoying fresh food, prepared simply so the ingredients can shine.
In macrobiotics, we hold to the thinking that food has both physical and energetic energy that can support or steal wellness and we build our menu plans on what we need to stay in some form of balance (in a world seemingly dedicated to keeping us off balance). Macrobiotics and Traditional Chinese Medicine, together with an understanding of conventional nutrition have proven to be powerful allies in my work and in my personal wellness.
For me, the best cancer prevention protocols are in your kitchen. A diet of whole grains, various seasonal vegetables, beans and fresh fruit, nuts, seeds and healthy fats are your best tools. Using foods that have a specific effect on wellness like shiitake and maitake mushrooms, miso and certain sea vegetables, leafy greens like kale and collards whose compounds help prevent cancer, we can sauté, simmer and juice our way to immune strength which, it turns out, is your best defense against cancer.
Is it a guarantee? I wish I could say yes, but in fact, nothing protects us from any and all discomfort or disease. I always say that eating in a manner that is balanced and appropriate for your condition is your best insurance policy. And if something does come along, you have the physical resources to put up a good fight.
That’s the best I can promise you…and it’s a lot.
Most experts tell us to reduce our consumption of saturated fat and meats as they increase the risk of cancer. They suggest we limit our intake of charboiled meats and deep-fried foods, along with limiting our intake of cured meats, like lunch meats and hot dogs. They also suggest we limit our intake of processed or fast food. Duh.
I’m tired of soft-peddling with words like “reduce” and “limit.” These foods must be eliminated from our diets if we’re serious about trying to prevent cancer (We are serious, right?). Otherwise, we’ll just participate in more and more fundraisers dedicated to finding cures to diseases we can prevent. I am tired of seeing billions of dollars spent on early detection and “cures in our lifetime” with next to nothing spent on preventing these modern plagues in the first place. I’m tired of “new cancer therapy protocols” that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars a month, putting them out of reach for most people but lining the pockets of pharmaceutical giants who profit off misery. I’m tired of being told that the best we can hope for is to live with cancer and manage it. I’m tired of it.
So don’t even begin to tell me how much you love chicken or burgers or lunch meats or soda or vegan sugary junk food and you couldn’t possibly give up these beloved foods and still enjoy your life. We are talking about preventing cancer here, not a hangnail. Cancer. The devastating disease that ruins bodies and destroys families, bankrupts us, rips loved ones from us before their time and leaves us bereft of them. I am weary of loss; weary of illness and disease that can be prevented. It’s time to hike up our skirts and eat like grown-ups who give a damn about life, wellness, our families, love and our fragile planet.
There…I’m done. Rant over. Remember that prevention is the best medicine.