The World Health Organization and the American Institute for Cancer Research estimate that between 67 and 72%of all cancer cases are preventable and that prevention offers the most cost-effective long-term strategy for the control of cancer as prevention of a chronic disease is infinitely less expensive than treatment (God help our health care system!).
Cancer. What Are The Big Risk Factors?
Several of the risk factors for cancer such as tobacco use, diet and obesity, activity levels, occupational exposures, alcohol use, and UV exposure are within our individual control for the most part. While some may feel this leads to ‘blaming the victim’ should someone develop cancer, I see it completely differently; rather than blaming a person, I see it has a huge opportunity to take control over one’s health. Some cancer risk is out of our control and there are no guarantees either; cancer doesn’t discriminate as even those with the healthiest of lifestyles can still develop this feared disease but significantly reducing one’s risk IS within reach.
With respect to risk reduction risk, there’s no shortage of confusion. It seems you can’t turn on the TV, surf the net, or poke around on social media without being inundated with the latest tip, supplement, so-called superfood or general fear-mongering that’s either going to spare you from cancer or cause it. It’s extremely important to not lose sight of the forest for the trees and get bogged down with the minutia of dietary dogma, others’ philosophies, rules, and hyperbole. Rather, focus on what the bulk of the evidence from well-designed research has shown and make small meaningful changes every day that will give you the biggest return on your investment.
What about superfoods, GMOs & pesticides?
For starters, there’s no such thing as a superfood per se. The word superfood is typically leveraged to imply that a given food has, and can do it, all; imbued with panacea-like properties whether that’s restoring health or preventing cancer for example. The reality is, that’s simply not true. No one food can do it all; it’s the sum of all our dietary choices that either moves us towards health or away from it; this is the total diet concept – at the end of the day, week, month, and year, when all our choices are added up, what is our nutritional bottom line? Are we in the red or in the black?
Sorry folks, if you think all you have to do is just add some goji berries or kale to your diet to reduce your risk for cancer, you’ve been misled.
When it comes to GMOs and pesticides, I’m not worried about them when it comes to chronic disease risk. This doesn’t mean that I’m set in my ways or won’t ever change my mind if good quality research proves otherwise, but the bulk of the research is clear, you CAN significantly reduce your risk for cancer (starting today) simply by making changes that are easy to include in your everyday life without having to focus on the minutia like GMOS, organic vs. non-organic or pesticides (by the way, organic farming uses its fare share of pesticides, herbicides & insecticides but produce & crops from both types of farming have residue levels that are far below the highly-regulated permissible acceptable maximum levels).
The World Cancer Research Fund’s report Food, Nutrition, Physical Activity and Prevention of Cancer. A Global Report is the culmination of a review of 7,000 rigorously designed scientific studies by 21 world renowned scientists who distilled the findings into 9 general recommendations and specific recommendations for two sub-groups. It’s worth noting, that on the surface these may seem like common sense or perhaps too good to be true; if reducing almost three-quarters of all cancers was this simple, then everybody would be doing it right? The fact of the matter is most Canadians routinely miss the mark. As a specific example, the average number of servings of fruits and vegetables Canadians are getting every day is about 4 ½ or about half of the recommended 7 to 10 per day.
- Be as lean as possible without becoming underweight.
- Be physically active for at least 30 minutes every day. Limit sedentary behaviour.
- Avoid sugar drinks. Limit consumption of energy/calorie-rich foods.
- Eat more and eat a variety of vegetables, fruits, 100% whole grains, and pulses [chickpeas, lentils, dried peas and beans].
- Limit consumption of red meats and processed meats.
- If consumed at all, limit alcoholic drinks to 2 per for men and 1 per for women.
- Limit consumption of foods with a lot of salt and highly processed foods with salt (sodium).
- Don’t rely on supplements to protect against cancer.
- Avoid tobacco including smoking or chewing it.
Recommendations for two sub-groups
- For new mothers, try to exclusively breastfeed for up to 6 months and then add other liquids and solids
- For cancer survivors, follow the recommendations above for cancer prevention
- Avoid excess sun exposure, avoid burning
- Minimize stress
While stress in and of itself isn’t a risk factor for cancer, being under stress may be a barrier to making healthier choices, can cause to derail from our regular routine, skip the gym, eat on the run, use alcohol to de-stress; in short, put our self-care on hold.
Cancer is not simply the result of having ‘unlucky genes’; most cancers develop through the interaction our genes and the environment. While we can’t change our genes, we do have some degree of control over how our environment interacts with them. Cancer risk is estimated to be attributed to 31% for tobacco use, 31% for poor diet and being obesity, 5% for physical inactivity, 3% for habitual alcohol and 2% for excessive UV exposure meaning you can lower cancer risk by a whopping 72%; something is no medication that can boast. My only question is, what are you waiting for?