Cancer is a formidable adversary that affects millions of lives worldwide. While there are many risk factors that play a role in its development, there is growing evidence that adopting a healthy lifestyle can significantly reduce the risk of cancer. Dr Phatho Zondi, Sports and Exercise Medicine (SEM) Physician and Virgin Active South Africa expert on all things relating to women’s health, discusses the powerful trio of diet, exercise and mental wellbeing and their profound impact on cancer prevention.
According to the World Health Organization, 30-50% of cancers are preventable. It is also positive to note that according to the American Cancer Society, the mortality rate from cancer has declined by 33% since 1991. This has been attributed to advances in treatment, early detection and an increased awareness of the role of lifestyle as a preventative measure.
Lifestyle behaviours such as smoking, excessive consumption of alcohol, consumption of red and processed meat, low consumption of fruits and vegetables and dietary calcium, physical inactivity, and exposure to chronic stress can make a marked difference when it comes to cancer risk. In a nutshell, these are the factors that are not inherited, and exposure to them is controllable.
So what should we be doing to better arm ourselves against the ‘big C’? Adopting a three-pronged approach as a ‘preventative triangle’ is a great way to ensure that you’ve got all your bases covered.
- Diet: Nourishing the body
The food we consume plays a pivotal role in determining our overall health, including our susceptibility to some cancers. Specifically, being overweight or obese is associated with an increased risk of several cancers, including (but not limited to) breast, colorectal and endometrial cancer. A well-balanced diet helps with weight management and should be rich in fruit, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, healthy fats – providing the body with essential nutrients and antioxidants that support its optimal defence systems.
Healthy eating includes:
- Foods that are high in nutrients in amounts that help you get to and stay at a healthy body weight. It’s important to remember that some people carry excess body weight due to health factors beyond their control. The numbers on the scale are definitely not the be-all and end-all, but for most, they represent a healthy range that are a benchmark to work towards.
- A variety of vegetables – dark green, red and orange, fibre-rich legumes (beans and peas), and others.
- Fruits, especially whole fruits in a variety of colours
- Whole grains.
Healthy eating limits or excludes:
- Red and processed meats.
- Sugar-sweetened beverages.
- Highly processed foods and refined grain products.
- Exercise: Fuelling the body
Physical activity is another powerful tool in the arsenal against cancer. Regular exercise offers numerous benefits for both preventing and surviving and cancer.
Firstly, exercise reduces inflammation, a key driver of cancer. Secondly, regular physical activity can regulate hormone levels, particularly in women. It lowers oestrogen levels, which can reduce the risk of breast and endometrial cancer.
Recent research has also shown that exercise positively influences gut microbiota, which plays a crucial role in cancer prevention. A balanced gut microbiome can promote a healthier immune system and inhibit the growth of cancer cells.
The World Health Organization recommends the following guidelines for exercise:
- Adults: Get 150-300 minutes of moderate or 75-150 minutes of vigorous intensity activity each week (or a combination of these). Getting to or exceeding the upper limit of 300 minutes is ideal.
- Children and teens: Get at least 1 hour of moderate or vigorous intensity activity each day.
- Limit sedentary behaviour such as sitting, lying down, watching TV, and other forms of screen-based entertainment.
- Mental-wellbeing: The mind-body connection
Mental health is often overlooked in the fight against cancer. Stress, anxiety and depression can weaken the immune system, making the body more susceptible to certain cancer types. On the flip side, positive mental wellbeing can be a potent preventative ally.
Consider the following when finding balance in your daily routine:
- Chronic stress can lead to the release of stress hormones, which can increase inflammation and cell damage. Try finding mindful practices such as yoga and deep breathing exercises that can help ease the pressures of daily life. Even taking time out for some quiet time on a daily walk can do wonders for your mind set.
- Getting enough sleep is essential because poor sleep patterns have been linked to an increased risk of cancer. Establish a regular sleep routine and limit screen time before bed. The overall effect this will have on your mental wellness will surprise you.
- Develop healthy coping mechanisms for dealing with life’s challenges to reduce the reliance on unhealthy habits like smoking or excessive alcohol consumption, both of which exponentially increase cancer risk. Tobacco smoke has more than 7000 chemicals, at least 250 are known to be harmful and at least 69 are known to cause cancer. Worldwide, tobacco use is the single greatest avoidable risk factor for cancer mortality and kills more than 8 million people each year.
Our cancer risk is significantly influenced by our plates, our activity choices and our minds. We live in a time when access to information is greater than ever before and yet, some of the world’s most preventable cancers are still cutting lives short. Making simple changes can make the world of difference. As cancer management improves, we need to become just as proficient in taking responsibility for the risks we can control. It’s up to us to decide what we can do right now and to take control of our health journeys in the long term.