Before I was diagnosed last year I knew very little about cancer. Once I was diagnosed I knew I wanted to face my illness head on, to “crush it” as my blog title suggests, but I had no idea what that would entail. As far as conventional medicine is concerned I have taken the most aggressive course of action. I have poisoned my cells through 20 rounds of chemo, had both breasts removed and gotten radiated: “poison, slash, burn” they call it. But for me, that is just where the crushing cancer journey begins. I would like to enjoy my life for as long as possible so I have tried to learn as much as I can about what steps I can take to reduce my cancer risk. And the fact is, the more I learn about cancer, the more I feel that everyone should be taking these same steps. The last thing in the world that I want is anyone that I love to have to go through what I’ve gone through.
The scariest thing I’ve learned about cancer is how prevalent it is. One half of all men and one-third of all women in the United States will develop cancer in their lifetimes. That’s an epidemic my friends. That means that there is something about the way we our living our lives that is giving us cancer. While genetics do play a role, the majority of cancers are caused by environmental factors, many of which we have some control over. I would be hard pressed to ever blame a cancer patient for their cancer (and have desperately tried to not blame myself for my own) but I would readily point the finger at our society, our values, our governments and corporations, which put convenience, money, and greed above life, health and nature.
Before I get to my cancer crushing tips there are some cancer basics you need to know. First, it’s important to know that we all have cancer cells floating around our bodies all the time. It’s only when those cells are allowed to multiply, settle down, and start a little family of mutated cells with a constant blood supply that they become “cancer” as we know it. Cancer cells become dangerous as a result of the following problems:
1. Chronic inflammation: When our bodies are damaged inflammation comes to the rescue to repair our cells. But when our bodies need to be constantly repaired that inflammation can become chronic and that good response can turn into cell mutation and proliferation which can cause cancer.
2. Overworked immune systems: Our bodies’ immune systems are always working to get rid of all foreign bodies, including germs, viruses, toxins and cancer cells. But when our bodies have high levels of toxicity our immune systems can become overworked and malfunction, sometimes causing allergies or auto-immune diseases, and sometimes losing the capability to properly fight off cancer cells.
3. Angiogenesis: Angiogenesis is the process through which your body creates new blood vessels. We only need new blood vessels when we have a wound or become pregnant. This process involves a complicated mix of “on” and “off” switches to build the blood vessels and then cause them to retreat. When the “off” switch, otherwise known as anti-angiogenesis, is broken, things like cancer cells can draw their own blood supply so they can spread and grow.
So here are my cancer crushing tips. They are also healthy life tips, fight the power tips, and take back our bodies tips.
Plants, plants, plants people. Eat plants. Eat as many of them as you can. Plants fight ALL of the cancer causing factors above. They reduce inflammation with inflammation-fighting nutrients and antioxidants. They support our immune system with immune boosting nutrients. AND many plants are anti-angiogenic, meaning they support that “off” switch to stop blood vessels from growing. And another wonderful thing is that all the things we use to make plants even more delicious: garlic, turmeric, parsley, olive oil and many, many other herbs and spices are ALSO cancer fighting. Plants guys. Plants.
Tip #2: Exercise, exercise, exercise
I’m not saying spend 20 hours at the gym every week or run yourself to death. Just move your body. Move it in whatever way you can and move it consistently. Moderate exercise has been shown to reduce inflammation and boost your immune system. Get out there and do whatever you enjoy doing and switch it up as often as you want. Ride your bike to work. Walk the dog. Take up karate. Whatever it is just move your body.
Tip #3: Stop smoking
For the love of everything in existence please, please, please don’t smoke and if you do please find a way to quit. I know this should be obvious but the number of people, especially young people, that I see smoking in my neighborhood is incomprehensible. Smoking isn’t just a known cause for lung cancer, it’s a known cause for 16 different cancers. Smoking a cigarette puts 7,000 chemicals into your body, 69 of which cause cancer and many of which are poisonous. As you can imagine this overwhelms the immune system and causes inflammation which can lead to many dangerous health problems. I have never been addicted to anything so I don’t know how hard it is to quit smoking but I promise that it is not as hard as the cancer treatments I have been through over the last year. Please, please, just stop. (source)
Tip #4: Avoid processed foods
As often as you can you want the food on your plate to be as close as possible to what it started out as. Processed meats have been linked to cancer, partly because of the things that are used to preserve them, which includes salt and smoking although nitrites are the worst (source). You especially want to limit intake of hot dogs and deli meat. Other processed foods often contain either white flour or white sugar or high fructose corn syrup which are linked to increased inflammation. Basically, you don’t need to cut out processed foods altogether but try to eat fresh food and when you can’t check out the label: the fewer ingredients the better and the more ingredients you can pronounce the safer you’ll be.
Tip #5 Reduce red meat and dairy intake
I’m not saying to cut out cheese entirely! I am currently mostly vegan but I am not saying everyone has to be. Just try to limit these things. Why? Two reasons. First, red meat has been linked to cancer and dairy is linked to increased inflammation (and in my case dairy is linked to higher risk of recurrence). Second, the more space on your plate taken up by meat and cheese the less room there is for plants. We all need a certain number of calories. We can either get those calories from cancer fighting, immune boosting, inflammation reducing, anti-angiogenic plants or from nutritious but potentially cancer and inflammation causing meats and dairy. So just try to limit your intake. You don’t have to beat yourself up over bacon or ice cream. Just limit red meat to once or twice a week, and maybe check out soy or almond milk as an alternative for your morning cereal. I promise, they aren’t that bad!
Tip #6 Pay attention to where your food comes from
It’s not always feasible but whenever you can I encourage you to eat organic. Pesticides are known to have cancer causing agents and these toxins overwork our immune systems. Studies have shown that more than 600,000 children ages 1-5 in America eat a dose of insecticides that are deemed unsafe by the government (half of the children got that dose from eating an apple, applesauce or apple juice). More than 1 million children ages 1-5 eat at least 15 different pesticides each day (source). Our bodies, especially little growing bodies, don’t need these extra toxins. Eating organic ensures that you are avoiding toxic pesticides. I promise that organic is worth it!
Additionally, if your food comes from an animal I encourage you to eat animals that are happy, meaning they get to go out and eat grass or roam outside of cages. And there is a really good reason besides just that we should care about animals and the conditions they are raised in: I am sure you have all heard about Omega fats. There are Omega 3s and Omega 6s. They are supposed to be in balance and the ratio is supposed to be 1:1. Omega 6s help your body create inflammation when it needs to and help you store fat. Omega 3s reduce that inflammation and limit your fat stores. The problem is our modern diets have WAY more Omega 6s than 3s (between 20:1 and 50:1 ratio) which increases our inflammation and makes us obese. Grain and corn primarily have Omega 6s. Grass is chock full of Omega 3s. Therefore, grain fed cows have 5 times the amount of Omega 6s as grass-fed cows, making their meat much more inflammatory to our bodies (source). Also, my carnivorous friends tell me grass-fed beef is way yummier (learn more about Omega 3 and 6)!
Tip #7 Pay attention to what you put on your body
Our bellies aren’t the only way that toxins can get in to our bodies. Our skin, is actually our largest organ, and we tend to put a lot on it. Every day we put thousands of chemicals into our bodies through our lotions, shampoos, make-up, sunscreens, etc. and the FDA has no authority to require companies to test the safety of their products. In Europe more than 1,000 cosmetics ingredients have been banned and in the US we have banned 8 (source). Some of these chemicals are cancer causing and also add toxicity to our bodies, creating inflammation. Fortunately, someone has done something about it! The Environmental Working Group (EWG), has developed a database called Skin Deep in the form of a website and an easy-to-use app. It rates products on a safety scale of 1 to 10 and tells you if the risk is related to cancer, endocrine disruption, allergies, etc. I use the app every time I buy a beauty product and try to keep everything in my bathroom below a 4 (1 is the best).
Tip #8 Pay attention to your surroundings
Obviously there are some professions that expose people to toxic chemicals and increase the risk of cancer. For example, did you know that the well-known carcinogen BPA is used in receipts? And that cashiers have twice the amount of BPA in their urine as a result (source)? Fortunately, EWG has a guide on how to avoid BPA. If you work in one of these dangerous fields be aware of the dangers, talk to your employer, find out what your rights are and be as careful as possible. Other things to look out for are things like our cleaning products which are full of chemicals that can easily get into our clothes, on our skin and in our bodies. EWG has come to the rescue once again with their helpful guide to cleaning products. I ended up dumping all of my cleaning products for safer ones last fall. If you want to see my spreadsheet for the products I had (they were all rated between a C and an F) and the products I switched to you can check it out!
Tip #9 Support cancer prevention advocacy
I know that we all want to find a “cure” to cancer but “cancer” includes more than 100 different diseases and each one reacts completely differently inside each unique human body. I am all about research to find new ways to treat my disease and ensure I will live a long and happy life but we can’t forget about prevention. Stopping cancer before it starts is really what will help us all live long and happy lives. We need to be supporting those who are advocating for prevention, who are trying to stop toxins from getting into our water and our air- things that we have no control over, who are trying to hold corporations and our government accountable for protecting consumers from unsafe toxins. My favorite organization doing just that is Breast Cancer Action. They have taken on everyone from frackers to yogurt companies in an attempt to stop practices that are causing breast cancer.
Tip #10 Be kind. Be gentle. Be patient.
Be kind to your body. Think about how food makes your body feel, not just how it tastes. Feed your body to fuel it, not just to satisfy an urge. Be gentle with yourself. Stress alone can cause inflammation. Don’t let yourself burn out. Take vacations if you can. Meditate if you feel like it. Just sit still for 5 minutes a day if that’s all you can do. Go to yoga or get massages or try out acupuncture or go for long walks. Whatever relaxes you. Let go, whenever you can, of things that bring stress into your life. Be patient with yourself. You are human and being a human is really hard. Trust me. I know.
(And if there had to be a Tip #11 it would be: drink water, go outside, eat sprouted grains, put turmeric on everything, drink green tea instead of coffee, take probiotics, go to a farmers market, use glass tupperware, read Michael Pollan books, sleep 8 hours and turn off the TV).