Four Key Ways to Help Prevent Cancer

Published On Dec 17, 2021

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Hi, everyone. I'm Dr. John Whyte, the chief medical officer at WebMD. And you're watching Cancer in Context, where we talk about the latest advances in cancer treatments and diagnosis. While it's true that we witnessed a tremendous explosion of new drugs and treatments that target specific cancer cells, treatment is no walk in the park. It might cure you, but it also might decrease your quality of life and not help you live longer. And we still don't have screening tools for most cancers.

As a result, we have 1 million new cases of cancer diagnosed every year, and 600,000 people die of cancer yearly. In order to truly win the war against cancer, we need to prevent it in the first place. The biggest myth I hear from people regarding cancer is that it is mostly caused by genetics. That's so wrong. Although genetics does play a role in whether or not you develop cancer, most experts agree it accounts for less than 30% of cancer.

The little-known truth is that lifestyle and the environment play the major role. Let me phrase that another way. What you eat, how you exercise, how much you sleep, your outlook on life, where you live, and how you live help determine whether or not you'll get cancer. We need to change a mindset from "I hope I don't get cancer" to "how can I prevent cancer?"

Believe it or not, you have the power to reduce your risk for many cancers. There's more data now than ever before as to what you can do, what you need to do, in order to prevent a cancer diagnosis. I want you to think about cancer in the same way that you do for heart disease or stroke. Even if your parents had a heart attack, you don't automatically think you're destined to the same fate. Rather, I bet you try to keep your weight under control, watch your blood pressure and lower your cholesterol level, and might even try to increase how active you are.

You're playing a proactive role in whether or not you'll get a heart attack or become debilitated from a stroke. It needs to be the same with cancer. Your decisions play a major role in your risk of being diagnosed with cancer. Now, of course, nothing is 100% preventable, but science can now show you how to reduce your personal risk.

There's at least one important difference with cancer that I'd like to point out. Unlike with heart attack or stroke, you often don't get a second chance with cancer to make those lifestyle changes that you often get with heart disease. That's why it's so important for you to understand what you can do, what you have the power to do in creating your personal cancer prevention program. In Take Control of Your Cancer Risk, I go over different lifestyle changes you can make as part of a cancer prevention program.

Here's a few I'd like you to consider. Number one-- treat food as medicine. Food is truly as powerful and as important as prescription medicines. There's even an old proverb that says, he who takes his medicine and neglects to diet wastes the skills of his doctor. Food affects every organ and system in your body.

Think about it. How do you feel after eating turkey on Thanksgiving Day or after eating a bunch of sugary sweets? I'm sure you don't feel the same way after drinking a large cup of coffee as you do after a few glasses of wine. While a healthy diet can't completely prevent cancer, it can help reduce your odds of getting cancer. Just as you change your diet if you have diabetes or heart disease, you also need to change your diet to help prevent cancer. It's many of the same principles as for other health conditions.

Now, there are a few foods and concepts, however, that are particularly important when it comes to cancer. Let's start with the foods that increase risk and you should limit. This includes red meat, processed meat, refined grains, alcohol, and sugary beverages. Because it's just as important, though, what you include as well as what you exclude, you want to include plenty of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and fish. Here's an idea. Instead of buying supplements, use spices and herbs liberally.

Number two-- make sure you're getting quality sleep. Despite the overwhelming data that currently exists about the importance of sleep, many people still don't think it's important for them. "I'll sleep when I'm dead" is a refrain I've heard from many patients over the years. Sadly, it's often from people who have had health issues and don't see the relationship between their poor health and poor sleep.

Others feel sleep is keeping them from living life. We have a FOMO mentality, Fear Of Missing Out, and sleep gets in the way. So I want you to spend time thinking about your sleep and its impact on your health. I know we do it every day. It seems simple. But when we're busy, what's the first thing we cut down on? You got it-- sleep. We always seem to think there'll be plenty of time later to sleep.

We view a restful night of sleep as a luxury rather than a necessity, yet science shows that sleep quality can be as important as diet and exercise for maximum health. Some people like to brag about how much they accomplish with little sleep. I only need four hours of sleep. I'm sure you've heard folks say that. Some people still equate lack of sleep with a strong work ethic even though inadequate sleep impacts our health and ultimately decreases work productivity.

Sleep deprivation should not be used as a badge of honor. No one feels good after an all-nighter, no matter the reason-- important job assignment, school task, or even a newborn baby. It certainly is not a good approach when it comes to designing your personal cancer prevention strategy. So when it comes to sleep, think quality, though, as well as quantity. Not getting enough sleep over time or not getting quality restorative sleep weakens your immune system. It promotes weight gain, and it increases abnormal cell behavior, all of which have been linked to cancer.

You still not sure, maybe, about the connection of sleep and cancer? Here's a question for you. What do you do when you're sick or you just don't feel well? You go to bed early. You sleep. You inherently know that sleep helps you fight infection.

Now, to get better sleep, you want to make where you sleep like a spa-- quiet and dark. The only difference-- it should be cool. The ideal temperature is around 68 to 70 degrees. So that should settle a lot of arguments about what's the right temperature. Cooler is better.

Number three-- exercise certainly needs to be a key component of your cancer prevention program. When it comes to exercise, don't forget to sweat. For you to reap the benefits of cancer prevention, intensity does matter. You want to get your heart racing.

Be honest. How do you feel after exercise? You feel great. You never say, oh, I wish I hadn't gone for a run or played basketball. Rather, you're feeling the effects of those endorphins, the feel-good hormones. I encourage you to choose an activity that you enjoy and that you'll stick with. Think brisk walking, bicycling, hiking, gardening, swimming, running, jogging, aerobic dance, basketball.

You don't have to go to a gym if you don't want to to exercise. The goal is to be active 30 minutes a day most days of the week. If you can't do 30, at least start with 10 minutes and build up to it. Surely, you have 10 minutes each day for your health, don't you?

Number four-- acknowledge the mind-body connection. Although we can't simply will ourselves to not get cancer, what we can do is to learn how to manage chronic stress and the harmful inflammation that it causes in the body. You need to take stress seriously and work on ways to minimize the daily chronic stress that many people experience. You do this by acknowledging your negative emotions. Give them a name-- anger, jealousy, sadness, fear-- and then start to address them.

Learn what it means to be mindful and start to practice mindfulness techniques. Try breathing techniques that can calm the body and the mind. Consider using a gratitude journal, writing down every day one thing you're grateful for. Take time to savor pleasure. Let go of what you can't control and get support when you need it.

There is no one single thing you can do that will automatically prevent cancer. Rather, it's the daily choices that you make over time that influences your personal risk. These are some of the strategies you'll find in Take Control of Your Cancer Risk. Feel free to email me any questions at [email protected]. Thanks for watching.