Today I’m going to talk about something no one really ever wants to talk about. Cancer.
Can nutritious food and regular exercise prevent cancer? Maybe yes. Maybe no. Just…maybe. The link between healthy eating, physical activity and reduction of disease risk is pretty clear with many other diseases, but less so with cancer. As you can imagine, much research has been done on this question, much research is currently being done and much research will be done in the future. Some cancers seem to be more preventable by a healthy lifestyle than others.
Among those diseases that are largely preventable through healthy behaviors are diabetes, heart disease and the conditions that contribute to them, like high blood pressure and high cholesterol. Yes, you heard me. They are largely preventable. By and large, diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure and high cholesterol happen because people eat too much of the wrong foods and don’t move enough. Yes, genes can play a role, but your genes are not your destiny!
If it wasn’t bad enough that more people are developing serious, chronic health conditions like diabetes and high blood pressure, increasing numbers of Americans are developing two, three or more!
So, you may or may not be able to ward off cancer by what you eat and how often you go for a walk instead of watching TV. But you can probably tell a host of other diseases to shove off. So what does one have to do with the other? I’ll tell you what. If you are already suffering from a chronic health condition, and then you get cancer, it is going to be harder to treat your cancer. It can be complicated to do what needs to be done to fight the cancer without making your preexisting condition(s) worse. Like if you have diabetes, there is increased risk of kidney damage, in part because your medications may need to be altered or temporarily stopped.
Call me crazy, but if I ever get cancer, which I hope I never do (knock on wood), I want the path to treatment to be wide open and free of obstacles. And I want my body to be otherwise as healthy as possible so it can rally its own defenses to help fight the nasty mutant cells in its midst.
Yes, dear readers, if you treat your body right, it can be a powerful ally in your wishes to never receive a cancer diagnosis.
I’ve only studied cancer at the cellular level a little, so far, in terms of what has to happen in the body for a normal cell to become a cancer cell, and for that cancer cell to be able to divide, multiply and spread. You may be interested to know that we all have cancer cells. Babies have cancer cells. A cancer cell is simply a cell that doesn’t behave like it is supposed to. It’s abnormal. Now that I’ve alarmed you, rest assured that our bodies have astounding mechanisms for identifying these rogue cells and killing them off before they can take off and start multiplying like gangbusters.
It takes a failure of two or three of these mechanisms before an abnormal cell can become a problem. That’s why simply having a gene for a certain type of cancer doesn’t guarantee that you’ll ever get that cancer. A set of identical twins has the exact same genes (DNA). Yet there are many cases where one twin will develop a certain cancer (or another disease) and the other twin never does. What does that tell you (again) about your genes not being your destiny?
Even if there is no conclusive link between a healthy diet, regular exercise and lowered risk of cancer, doesn’t it make sense to support the health of our bodies so that they are in the best position possible to spot and abnormal cell and go all Dirty Harry on it (“Go ahead, make my day!”)
I’m not a huge advocate of fear as a motivational tool for healthy lifestyle changes. For every person who commits to a healthier life after they have a heart attack or learn that they have diabetes, many more continue on with their same unhealthy habits, or set out with the best of intentions of “turning their life around,” starting strong but gradually returning to their old ways.
Trouble is, as the days, weeks and months tick by, and the health crisis or delivery of the diagnosis fades further and further into the past, motivation can fade, too. It can be hard to keep eating right and exercising even if you don’t feel like it, all for what seems like some hazy future health payoff. Among the many tools I use to motivate myself to eat right and exercise every day, even on days I don’t totally feel like it, is to visualize what it would be like if I failed to do the right think and lost the good health I enjoy today.
Isn’t that what you do when you sign up for car insurance, health insurance, life insurance, disability insurance? You (generally) don’t pay those premiums assuming you’ll get in an accident or develop a dread disease or die early or get injured and be unable to work. You pay those premiums because you know that sometimes the unexpected happens, you’ve imagined (at least a little) what it would be like if the unexpected happened and you did NOT have insurance!
So, when you look at it that way, eating right and fitting both formal exercise and general physical activity into your day is better than insurance. Odds are, you will get a big future payout of better health (this one is hard to measure, because once you choose a path, you’ll never really know what would have happened if you chose the other path), plus, once you get past any short term discomfort from changing some less-healthy habits, you’ll enjoy the, let’s call them mid-term benefits of looking and feeling your best. And don’t we all want that?