There seems to be a lot of truth to the old saw “You are what you eat.” Research has found strong evidence linking diet to heart disease, hypertension and diabetes. Now researchers are adding cancer to the list of chronic illnesses that may be preventable by eating a healthy diet.
As previously noted, maintaining a healthy weight, eating a Mediterranean-style diet rich in fruits and vegetables, and exercising regularly are the three smartest things you can do to reduce your cancer risk and improve your odds of survival if you do contract cancer.
According to estimates by the American Institute of Cancer Research, more than 100,000 cases of cancer a year could be prevented in the U.S. if people ate a healthy diet to maintain a healthy weight and avoid obesity.
“Dozens and dozens of studies show that people who are overweight or obese have higher rates of many different cancers,” Walter Willett, M.D., head of the department of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health told AARP in a recent article. “It’s not just one study or two,” he says. There is “a massive amount of evidence.”
In concert with the National Institutes of Health, AARP studied the long-term effects of eating a Mediterranean-type diet on the development of cancer. While the study focused on people over age 50, the findings were so remarkable that researchers believe the benefits will prove true for people of all ages. The study provides the most powerful evidence to date of the strong links between diet and cancer.
More than 1 million Americans are diagnosed with cancer every year. Men have a 1 in 2 chance of developing cancer during their lifetimes. For women, the risk is 1 in 3. In the U.S. more than 13 million people are actively battling cancer or have survived the fight. Cancer has numerous causes, only some of which we understand.
We know that smoking, alcohol abuse, unprotected sun exposure and genetics can increase the risk of developing certain cancers. In fact, our lifestyle choices may play a significant role in cancer risk and prevention. Researchers are discovering that the same healthy lifestyle choices that can decrease the risk of heart disease and diabetes may also decrease cancer risk.
“We know that we can prevent about a third of all cancers if people would maintain a healthy weight, eat a plant-based diet and be physically active,” American Institute for Cancer Research dietitian Alice Bender told AARP.
People who make healthy choices about diet, exercise and weight control — the Big 3 of cancer prevention — can significantly reduce their chance of developing cancer and, should cancer develop, improve their odds of survival.
Weight. Maintaining a healthy weight may be the most critical step people can take to reduce cancer risk. People who are overweight or obese experience higher rates of many cancers.
Diet. Eating a Mediterranean diet rich in vegetables, fruits, nuts, beans, whole grains, olive oil and fish has been shown to reduce cancer risk.
Exercise. Regular physical exercise aids weight control, boosts the immune system and may aid cancer prevention.
If you or a loved one is diagnosed with cancer, you need the support of people who have walked in the same shoes understand what you are going through. Online cancer support communities provide opportunities for patients, survivors and caregivers to help and support each other:
IHadCancer.com. Cancer survivors, patients and caregivers share stories, successes and treatment experiences. Site users can filter searches by gender, age, year of diagnosis, type of diagnosis and their role as patient, survivor or caregiver.
CancerCare.org. Led by professional oncology social workers, Cancer Care groups are available for the most prevalent cancers. Also offered are support groups for post-treatment survivors, caregivers, loved ones, and bereavement/grief. Telephone and face-to-face support groups are also offered.
American Cancer Society. A clearinghouse for all things related to cancer, this multi-language site provides educational information on cancer topics, current cancer research, clinical trials, staying healthy, and other treatment tools and resources. Online support communities are hosted for patients, survivors, family and caregivers. Phone, email and local support are also available.
CancerSupportCommunity.org. Online support groups, distress screening and emotional support services for patients, family and caregivers are among the educational and support services provided. A special online support group for teens is also available. Site users can create their own webpage to keep friends and family updated on their cancer journey. Helpful information is provided on parenting through cancer and other issues families face when a loved one has cancer.
Thousands of people are touched by cancer every day; yet in the early days of diagnosis the feeling that you are alone in your struggle is nearly universal. A cancer diagnosis is an isolating event.
Patients and their families talk of feeling like the walls of their world are closing in on them. In the shock of dealing with their cancer diagnosis and coping with the overwhelming task of scheduling doctors’ visits and lab work, evaluating the potential effectiveness of traditional and alternative cancer treatments, making arrangements to start treatment, and managing all the changes cancer inflicts on their personal, family and work life, many cancer patients and their families tend to draw back from their normal support systems, increasing their feelings of isolation.
Many times newly-diagnosed cancer patients hesitate to share their diagnosis with extended family, friends or co-workers until they have a clearer picture of what they’re facing and how cancer might affect their ability to continue their normal activities. Often, cancer patients and their immediate families are so overwhelmed by their own fears and emotions that they are simply unable to also deal with the fears and emotions of others. While friends mean well, cancer patients can find their raw expressions of concern and sympathy uncomfortable and even embarrassing.
Despite all these difficulties, cancer patients and their families desperately need support. Cancer is a difficult battle that is impossibly hard to fight alone. Many cancer patients find the support they need in online communities where cancer patients and their families share their stories of hope and help lift each other up when despair strikes.
Next time: A review of online cancer support groups
When a family member or friend is diagnosed with cancer, people are often torn about how to respond. They want to help but are sensitive about intruding. Not knowing whether an offer of help will be appreciated or viewed as meddling often leads friends to make vague offers to help.
Unsure what kind of help is being offered, cancer patients and their families are frequently uncomfortable taking their friends up on such offers. As we noted in our previous post, making your offer to help specific can breach any feelings of discomfort.
Here are additional suggestions on ways to offer meaningful aid to a friend or family member who is battling cancer:
Follow through. Many offers of help follow the initial diagnosis of cancer; but for the cancer patient and his family the battle keeps going after those first few weeks. Don’t stop helping after a week or two. Friends who are still helping a month, 3 months, 6 months after the diagnosis make a real difference in the family’s life.
Don’t overstep. Helping does not give you license to manage your friend’s life or offer unsolicited advice. Be sensitive to the need for autonomy, especially if cancer strips away personal independence. Respect your friend’s boundaries.
Remember celebrations. Life does not stop because you have cancer. Remember holidays, birthdays, anniversaries, holiday traditions, etc. Celebrate life!
Be supportive. Check your own feelings, opinions and prejudices at the door. Respect your friend’s cancer treatment decisions. Maintain a warm, supportive, encouraging and positive attitude when you are with your friend and his or her family.
When we learn that a friend or family member has been diagnosed with cancer, we instinctively want to help but may not know what to do. The usual “get better soon” platitudes are obviously inappropriate when serious illness strikes and the prognosis may be dire. Yet, it is at times like these when hopelessness and despair threaten to overwhelm someone we love that they and their family need us most.Serious illness generates unfamiliar discomfort for both the cancer patient and his friends. In watching someone else face death, we are reminded of our own human frailty; something most of us prefer not to think about. If a friend or family member is diagnosed with cancer, don’t stay away out of embarrassment or a misplaced desire not to intrude; but do use the following suggestions to offer meaningful aid:
Be specific. Even people who have a minor illness are unlikely to take you up on a vague offer to “call me if there’s anything I can do.” This is even more true of people who are diagnosed with cancer. Making a specific offer of help is more useful. Life goes on when you have cancer. Dogs must be walked, children taken to school and activities, meals cooked, houses cleaned, etc. Shouldering even one of these responsibilities for your friend will be deeply appreciated. Offering to drive your friend to doctors’ appointments or treatment sessions, walk the dog, pick up the kids from school, bring over a hot meal every Monday night or take over carpool duties to kids’ activities will make your friend’s life easier and be appreciated.