A cancer diagnosis is feared by everyone – but a respected professor of cancer prevention says there’s something you can do to increase the chances of avoiding it.
Well, actually, there are six things you can do to help prevent or delay cancer, or live much longer if you already have it, according to Dr Lorenzo Cohen. His ‘Mix of Six’ anticancer lifestyle pillars are outlined in his new book Anticancer Living, which he’s written with his wife Alison Jefferies, and which builds on ideas proposed by Cohen’s friend, the late neuroscientist Dr David Servan-Schreiber.
Servan-Schreiber was diagnosed with a brain tumour at the age of 31, and dedicated his remaining years to investigating the lifestyle choices that can affect human biology, enhance immunity, decrease inflammation and suppress the proliferation of cancer cells. He incorporated the cancer-beating choices into his own life, and lived for nearly 19 years after his cancer diagnosis – four times longer than expected.
Cohen’s book clearly identifies the six lifestyle choices – all linked with cancer risk and found to influence outcomes for those with cancer – and explains how to incorporate them into everyday life.
So what are they?
Cohen points out that the consistent message from numerous studies is that maintaining a healthy weight, exercising regularly, not smoking, and drinking in moderation can prevent at least half of cancers and cancer deaths – claims well-supported by research. But his six lifestyle factors, which include love and support, stress management and environmental toxins, take things even further – and the key with his recommendations is that although each one helps reduce cancer risk independently, they are far more potent when working hand-in-hand.
Cohen explains: “Emerging evidence reveals the best approach is to have the ideal mix of six, as each area influences the other. E.g. sleep deprivation is linked with unhealthy dietary choices and obesity; stress can cause sleep loss, modifies food metabolism, and sabotages all healthy choices.”
Curious? Cohen and Jefferies recommend starting with love and support, and then ensuring stress doesn’t sabotage efforts to improve sleep, diet, and physical activity habits. Here’s a look at the ‘Mix of Six’…
1. Love and support
Giving and receiving love and support can specifically affect how cells function and express the genes that control health, says Cohen. A Harvard University study of 750,000 cancer patients found those who were married had a 20% better chance of survival than those who were either single, divorced or widowed.
But don’t worry, a marriage certificate isn’t crucial – it’s thought a partner, or just a good friend who’ll support you and attend appointments with you, can have an equally positive effect.
Cohen suggests getting friends to help you change your lifestyle choices, creating a support team. Look for opportunities to share experiences with loved ones, and support other people as well as expecting them to support you.
2. Stress management
This aspect of the ‘prescription’ is critical, says Cohen, as chronic stress has not only been found to sabotage all good healthy intentions, but can negatively affect most biological processes, decrease the beneficial effects of healthy foods and speed the ageing process.
He suggests trying a stress management activity like meditation, yoga or tai chi on a daily basis – in the morning, before bed, or when you need a breather in the middle of a busy day. Allocate a time to meditate for at least 10 minutes a day.
Be mindful in the moment. When stress mounts, stop what you’re doing, take a few deep breaths to help clear your mind, literally ground yourself with both feet on the ground, and relax. Centre yourself by acknowledging the stress trigger, picturing the ideal outcome, and acting on it from a calm place.
When we’re not well-rested, there are negative effects on key cancer hallmarks, including increased inflammation and decreased immune function, making us vulnerable to infection and possibly increasing cancer growth, explains Cohen.
Try to get between seven to eight hours sleep a night to improve your health, coping, mood, weight control, cognitive function and more, he advises. Establish a bedtime for yourself and stick to it, keeping weekday and weekend bedtimes similar to ensure you consistently get the required amount of sleep each night. Reduce ambient light in the bedroom, and eliminate screen time before bed. Also, carefully monitor and reduce stimulants like caffeine, alcohol and sugar.
4. Physical activity
It’s critical to limit sedentary behaviour, as the harm sitting around and not exercising causes is equivalent to the health risks of smoking or obesity, warns Cohen. Various studies suggest people who exercise regularly have a lower risk of developing cancer – a 2009 analysis of 52 studies, for example, found very physically active people had a 24% lower risk of developing colon cancer than people who were much more sedentary.
Exercise regularly, at least 30 minutes a day, five to six days a week, advises Cohen. Wear a pedometer and take a minimum of 10,000 steps a day, and make an effort to sit less. Incorporate physical activity when possible throughout the day – always take the stairs, walk on escalators, and stand at your desk or when watching TV, etc.
Cohen points out that an analysis of 95 studies found people who regularly eat 10 portions of fruit and vegetables a day have a significantly lower risk of developing chronic diseases, including cancer and heart disease.
He says people should aim to eat a primarily whole-food, variety-filled, plant-based diet. Limit foods like sweets and salty snacks, and maintain a balanced glycaemic load (foods like white bread. white rice and biscuits have a high glycaemic index). Fill half of your plate with vegetables, and try replacing meat with beans four times a week. Look for sugar in every product you buy – snacks, cereals, tomato sauces and other processed foods are often loaded with ‘hidden’ sugar. Avoid processed foods whenever possible.
6. Environmental toxins
Environmental toxins, especially endocrine (hormone) disruptors such as bisphenol A (BPA) and parabens, have been implicated in obesity, risk of cancer, and other illnesses, says Cohen, who warns people to limit exposure to them. Other chemicals we’re exposed to daily have also been classified as carcinogens, says Cohen, including Styrofoam and formaldehyde.
Use glass containers for storage and stainless steel water bottles to reduce exposure to plastics containing BPA or other plastic-based endocrine disruptors, he suggests. Read the ingredients list on personal-care products and avoid parabens, other ‘–bens’ and phthalates. Cohen adds: “Creating an anticancer environment begins at home and starts with what you are exposing yourself to voluntarily.”