Preventing Cancer Recurrence with Lifestyle Modifications
Updated: Oct 19, 2021
Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about my cancer diagnosis. Approaching my 10-year anniversary (a huge milestone in the life of a breast cancer survivor) really poses an opportunity for self-reflection. I remember the day vividly. It was a very warm October day in Ontario, Canada on the Canadian Thanksgiving Weekend. I was hanging out with my boyfriend at the time, and I felt the lump. I now think back on how I lived my life. I was a pretty “normal” woman in my 20’s. I went out on the weekends, had lots of drinks, and didn’t think twice. I also ate all the greasy processed food, didn’t consistently exercise, and never thought twice about putting plastic in the microwave. I now know how all those poor lifestyle choices may have been a contributor to my cancer diagnosis.
Some Cancers are Preventable
Recently the Canadian Cancer Society published a study, indicating that 4 in 10 cancer cases are preventable through healthy living and policies that protect the health of Canadians(1). Changes to lifestyle that include a healthy balanced diet, regular exercise, and the removal of tobacco, combined with proactive screenings, can make a huge difference in minimizing your risk. For example, in 2015 approximately 32,000 cancer cases in Canada could have been prevented simply by removing tobacco. Another 12,000 cases could have been prevented by adding regular physical activity(2).
I think about this a lot, because had I known then what I know now, I would have made a lot of different choices in my life. I’m not saying that I would have changed everything completely (I mean I was young and still wanted to have fun), but I might have thought a little more about what I put in my body and a little less about basking in the sun.
So, what can you do to reduce your risk?
1. Eliminate Tobacco: Smoking shortens lives, there are no if’s, and’s or but’s about it. Did you know that smoking is responsible for an estimated 30% of all cancer deaths in Canada? It also causes about 72% of lung cancer cases(3). But it’s never too late to quit. When you stop smoking, within 20 mins your blood pressure and pulse stabilize. At 24 hours, your lungs start to clear out mucus and other smoking debris and after 1 year, your heart attack risk reduces by half(4).
2. Add 150 mins of Physical Activity to your Week: The human body was meant to move. In fact, movement, historically was equivalent to survival. Our primal ancestors had no choice but to constantly be on the move in order to hunt and gather for the sake of survival. Physical activity is good for the body and soul and you don’t need to do strenuous exercise to reap the benefits. 20-30mins a day of walking in nature will do the trick. But if you have the capacity, add in some resistance training, aerobic activity or flexibility work to your routine. As part of the DRESS for Health Success protocol that I recommend to my clients, I often suggest a combination of physical activity to keep things interesting! But it’s also very important to ensure that the right amount of activity is conducted, not to over burden the body. This is something I teach my clients with my functional health coaching practice.
3. Maintain a Healthy Body Weight: Although I hate to focus on the scale, (because of the many factors that could affect the number), there is something to be said about keeping your body weight, and more importantly, your body fat at a healthy level. One measure that is often used to calculate a healthy body weight is BMI (Body Mass Index). This measure essentially calculates the ratio between your height and weight. An ideal BMI is between 18.5 and 24.9. However, I’m not a fan of BMI personally and prefer to look at a variety of different measurements including body fat percentage and the hip-to-waist ratio to provide a more accurate measure of a person’s “health” vs. just looking at weight. We need to keep in mind that “losing weight” and “building health” are not the same thing. Losing weight in the absence of other positive lifestyle changes that reduce the risk of cancer, really doesn’t provide much improvement in your overall.
4. Stay out of the Sun: In Canada, melanoma is one of the most common types of cancers for people aged 15-49(5) so protecting your skin should be an extremely important part of your routine. One blistering sunburn doubles your risk of developing melanoma in life and sustaining five sunburns in your youth can make an adult 80% more likely to develop melanoma in their lifetime. Protecting your skin using a mineral based sunscreen or protective clothing are some of the best ways to protect your skin and wearing a hat and sunglasses while outside also provides protection. But the sun isn’t all bad! It has some significant benefits and it’s important to grab a few rays each day to get a dose of Vitamin D. Vitamin D has been shown to reduce the risk of many cancers itself, including colorectal, breast, prostate and pancreatic cancer. The best way to get your daily dose is to spend 10-15 mins in the sun each day unprotected and then to protect your skin for the rest of the time you are outdoors.
5. Eat the Rainbow: Simply by removing processed foods (with all the “yucky” trans fats and added sugars) and increasing the number of servings of fruits and vegetables in your diet, can make a lasting impact to your health and reduce your risk of getting cancer and cancer recurrence. Fruits and vegetables specifically contain phytonutrients. Phytonutrients are chemicals produced by plants to ward off bugs, fungi and yeast to name a few. These same phytonutrients produce antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects in humans. Phytonutrients may also enhance immunity and intercellular communication, repair DNA damage from exposure to toxins, detoxify carcinogens and alter estrogen metabolism. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) notes that consuming a phytonutrient-rich diet seems to be an “effective strategy” for reducing cancer and heart disease risks(6). Phytonutrients can also be found in legumes, nuts, tea, whole grains and many spices.
6. Minimize Alcohol: Alcohol raises your risk of getting cancer. In fact, drinking 3.5 drinks a day doubles or even triples your risk of developing cancer of the mouth, pharynx, larynx and esophagus and increases your risk of developing colorectal cancer and breast cancer by 1.5 times(7). If you choose to drink, limit your intake to 1 drink or less per day for women and 2 drinks or less per day for men.
7. Minimize Toxins in Your Environment: Removing plastics, pollution, mercury, and other toxic chemicals from your environment plays an important role in the prevention of cancer. Many of the chemicals in our environment (including cleaning and personal care products) are endocrine (hormone) disruptors which interfere with the proper functioning of our hormones and HPA Axis. Messing with our hormones is just a bad idea. It leads to disruption at the cellular level which can affect our DNA and result in hormonal cancer diagnoses like breast and prostate cancer. It’s unrealistic to think that you can avoid all chemicals in your environment completely, but there are things that you can do to minimize your exposure. Simply by switching your personal care and cleaning products to natural alternatives can be a big step. You can access the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep database to see how your products stack up (https://www.ewg.org/skindeep/). Other things you can do include ensuring you’re only eating high mercury fish like tuna and swordfish 1-2 per week, eliminating the use of Teflon in your cookware and getting rid of all your plastic storage and replacing them with glass, stainless steel or beeswax.
Are you a cancer survivor and need guidance around lifestyle changes you can make to decrease your risk of recurrence?
I know as a cancer survivor myself, it is important to build a solid tribe of holistic professionals to help you face the uncertainties and answer your questions around your cancer diagnosis. What should I eat? What else can I do to decrease recurrence risk? How can I optimize my health after cancer? I can help you answer these questions, using functional lab screenings to provide you with recommendations that are specific to you. Let me be your health coach. I know what you’ve gone through and I can take you step-by-step back to establishing balance and wellness in your body.
Book a FREE 30 Min Discovery Session Now!
5 Canadian Cancer Society’s Advisory. Committee on Cancer Statistics. Canadian Cancer Statistics 2019. Toronto, ON: Canadian Cancer Society; 2019. Available at: cancer.ca Accessed on April 16, 2020