'Preventable' causes of cancer
07 Dec 2011
There's some interesting discussion in the media today following the report from Cancer Research claiming that 43% of cancers are preventable by life-style changes.
The report says 45% of cancers in men, and 40% in women, could be prevented (Cancer Research news release).
The research argues that more than 100,000 cancers – equivalent to one third of all those diagnosed in the UK each year – are being caused by smoking, unhealthy diets, alcohol and excess weight. This figure further increases to around 134,000 if a wider range of lifestyle and environmental risk factors (such as occupation, lack of exercise and exposure to radiation) are included.
Some people have reacted angrily to this (see for example the posts on the BBC News website). They feel that cancer victims are being blamed for causing their own illness. I don't see it that way, even though I could certainly argue that none of the main lifestyle risks applied in my case. Despite having lung cancer I have never smoked, have never been overweight, barely drink alcohol, have a healthy diet, and have taken plenty of exercise.
But self-righteousness - or for that matter guilt - is not the point here. I think it is encouraging that there is a wider discussion about factors such as exercise and diet. I was told that getting lung cancer was just 'bad luck'. No-one even asked me about my diet or levels of exercise. Nor did they suggest things I could do in this area.
Yet, even though my diet was pretty good (my wife is a health visitor, so I'm not allowed to get away with too much unhealthy food) I am sure I could have eaten more healthily and taken more of the right type of exercise. And - as I'll come onto later - I think my mental attitude could have been better.
Since my diagnosis I have changed my diet to include many more anti-oxidants (green tea, turmeric, mushrooms). I am juicing fruit and vegetables every day. I have almost completely cut out dairy products and have cut down on red meat. I am taking numerous supplements, herbal and homoeopathic remedies and I am trying to get to the gym or out on my bicycle much more. I really am feeling the benefits.
Some might say I am deluding myself - that it's just luck the course the cancer takes. But to feel you are doing something that may help feels so much better than just relying on chance or medical treatment (which in my case I was told was, anyway, only palliative not a cure).
There is another factor that is not covered by the Cancer Research UK report, namely what goes on in our heads. Again, there is a risk of upsetting people who feel they are being accused of causing their own cancers. No-one can make that sort of general accusation. Each individual case will be different. But - as with lifestyle factors - I am increasingly convinced that the way we think, and the emotions we have, can affect our physical health. After all, there is plenty of solid medical evidence of the placebo effect. So, if just thinking we are being treated makes some of us better, it seems likely there is a link.
I've been impressed with the arguments made by people like Gill Edwardes (author of Conscious Medicine) that the way we think affects our health. So I've been trying to put them into action.
So far - 8 months on from my diagnosis of inoperable Stage 4 lung cancer - I am feeling fit and well. That may just be luck and I recognise that others will have done all they possibly could and still not overcome the illness. But I certainly feel better for the better diet, for taking more exercise, and for thinking positively, relaxing, smiling and laughing as much as I can.