Everybody is afraid of cancer.
It’s the elephant in the room for many, many of my patient visits. Occasionally people will vocalize their fear, but often it’s lurking there, unsaid.
One of the scary things about cancer is the feeling that it could strike us down, randomly, like winning some horrible lottery. And that makes us feel like we’re out of control.
Fact is, there are lots of things we can do to stay healthy. To counteract feelings of helplessness, here are my top tips on how to prevent cancer:
1.Eat a Mediterranean diet.
This diet, rich in fruit & veggies, fish, whole grains, nuts and olive oil has been repeatedly linked with lower rates of cancer. The Mediterranean diet is my personal fave, and it’s not just about cancer prevention…there are other health reasons to adopt this way of eating (and lifestyle), like heart disease prevention. And then there’s the pleasure factor, something the Mediterranean diet has in spades.
Do I really need to go into detail on why this one is a good idea? Of course, easier said than done, I know. Quitting smoking is huge-ola. But help is out there. See your friendly doctor as a starting point! If you’re in BC, check out QuitNow. Or check out Health Canada’s advice. Also, the American Cancer Society has some ideas.
Preventing skin cancer is definitely within your control. Wear the highest SPF you can get your hands on. Also? Sport a hat, slide on those sunglasses. Another benefit of sunblock: wrinkle prevention. Leathery skin is so 1986. A caveat: if, like me, you wear sunblock like a religion…think about your vitamin D level–you could be deficient (which is easily fixed, though–see below).
4.Drink green tea.
Green tea is chock full of antioxidants. Those are the compounds that fight free radicals and reduce inflammation–underlying mechanisms that cause cancer. Early research on green tea is showing some promise in terms of cancer prevention, but some study results have been mixed. Still, green tea is safe, and if you find a blend you like, it’s a pleasurable ritual. Plus there are other health benefits to tea. While the scientists are busy sorting out the full story, I say enjoy a cup or two of green tea a day.
If you’ve adopted a Mediterranean diet, you’ll already be getting many of these superfoods shown to reduce cancer risk, but as extra weapons in your arsenal, try adding these yummies to your diet: blueberries, broccoli, beans, apples, garlic, grapes, tomatoes, and…wait for it: dark chocolate. Oh yes, people, I said chocolate.
6.Aim for a healthy weight.
There is a clear connection between excess body fat and cancer risk. Why? Fat cells don’t just sit there, merely thwarting your desire to squeeze into last year’s jeans. They produce estrogen. And estrogen promotes cell growth. They also secrete various chemicals and proteins that trigger inflammation and insulin resistance. Which also encourages cell growth. Maintaining a healthy weight is one of the best things you can do to prevent cancer. But…easier said than done. Need assistance? Start with portion control. Belly fat your issue? Here’s help in that department.
7.Take an Aspirin and call me in the morning.
A fascinating thing was discovered recently–a daily aspirin seems to reduce the risk of some big-time cancers: colon, lung, prostate, and more. And in this study, it reduced them by a lot. Why might this be? Aspirin is a potent anti-inflammatory, and it may also cause DNA-damaged cells to die. But aspirin is not for everyone–it can cause stomach lining irritation and bleeding. If you’re considering this route, talk to your doctor first.
Beyond keeping our weight under control, physical activity itself helps prevent cancer. It regulates hormone levels, boosts our immune systems, helps the digestive tract function smoothly…and we call that winning. Of course, shoe-horning exercise in to our busy lives is no small challenge. Here’s how to do it.
9.Take Vitamin D.
Studies have recently shown a higher cancer risk when vitamin D levels are low. Many of us are walking around deficient in vitamin D with no idea (ahem, count me as one of those). Consider a blood test to check your level, consider a little more sunshine in your life (but not too much!), consider supplements.
10.Get regular checkups & screening.
Paps, mammograms, colonoscopies…we’ve got all kinds of tools now to help us detect cancer early. Recommendations for screening will vary based on age and individual risk factors, so see your doc about this.
There you go, you’re on your way to a healthier future. Nothing to fear. Now…say it with me: Voldemort.
But…is calcium something you need to worry about? Should you take supplemental calcium?
The answer: it depends. It depends who you are, what your risk factors are, and what your diet is like. But most of us, to be honest, don’t get enough calcium.
Going vegan is a big-time trend right now, and while it can be a healthy lifestyle if done right, it can also leave you deficient in some things–and calcium is one of those things.
Cutting out dairy for food sensitivity/allergy/lactose intolerance is another trend. And something that can leave you wanting for calcium, too.
Calcium is important for bone health. And while that may sound a little on the boring side…trust me, you do not want to be one of those frail little things in your advanced years. Fractured hips and spines are an excruciating thing. Taking care of your bones, like many things about health, is an investment. You won’t see the payoff for a long time. But if you neglect your bones, by the time your body is showing signs, it will be too late.
So how do you make sure you’re getting enough calcium?
Adults need to aim for 1000 milligrams of calcium a day. Pregnant and breastfeeding women need to pay special attention to getting sufficient calcium. Women over age 50, and men over 70, should get 1200 mg a day.
Good food sources? Dairy is the best. A cup of milk contains about 300 mg of calcium. Other dairy products like cheese and yogurt, are excellent sources. But you can certainly find calcium in non-dairy foods: salmon, spinach, tofu, almonds, white beans, fortified OJ, and kale, to name a few. Some yummy stuff in that list, no?
The National Institutes of Health has a factsheet on calcium and a chart of calcium-rich food sources.
One approach: try to get at least half your calcium intake from food. Then supplement the rest to fill in the gaps.
The key with supplemental calcium is taking the right amount. Our bodies have a tough time absorbing calcium if the dose is higher than 500 mg at one sitting. So, two separate doses of 500 mg will be more effective than a single mega-dose of 1000 mg.
Also, recent research has shown that too much calcium may be not-so-great for your heart. If you overdo it with supplements, you could increase your risk of a heart attack. But this is a relatively new finding–more research is needed to figure out exactly what’s going on, here. In the meantime, use caution with calcium supplements if you’re at high risk of heart disease. Stick with food sources to be safe.
If you do take calcium supplements, you should also take vitamin D, to improve calcium absorption. (besides the other benefits of vitamin D).
And what do I do, personally? Well, I love milk. Love yogurt, couldn’t live without cheese (wouldn’t want to, either), take real cream in my coffee….basically, I could do commercials for the dairy board.
But that’s just me.
So what’s the truth? As with many things, it’s controversial. And not even the “experts” can agree.
Some studies have shown benefit. Others have been equivocal, or downright discouraging.
For example, the Annals of Internal Medicine published a study of more than 88,000 women (the Nurses’ Health Study, at Harvard). Those who took multivitamins for 15 years or more significantly reduced the risk of colon cancer as compared to those who took multivitamins for less time.
Another study demonstrated that taking a multivitamin reduced the risk of a first-time heart attack in a group of Swedish men and women aged 45 to 70.
However, a different Swedish study showed an increase in breast cancer risk among women who took multivitamins.
Welcome to the thorny world of medical research.
In 2002 a study was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Researchers from the Harvard School of Medicine had pored over 35 years’ worth of research on vitamins. Their conclusions? Every adult should take a daily multivitamin as a safe and inexpensive way to improve health.
A study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2009 showed that multivitamin use was associated with longer telomere length in women. (Telomeres–the tips of your chromosomes–are a biological marker of aging. Essentially, the longer your telomeres, the younger/healthier your cells are.)
There are more studies, of course, but I can see your eyes glossing over so I’m going to stop there.
My opinion? I think multivitamins are a good thing. Maybe not a cure-all, but I think there’s some benefit nonetheless.Think of your multivitamin as an insurance policy. Possibly unneccessary, but generally low-risk. And perhaps there to bridge your various nutritional gaps. I wouldn’t count on a multivitamin to significantly boost your health, but it’s not a bad idea.
Don’t fool yourself, however, that all you need to do to stay healthy is take a multivite. Vitamins are not a substitute for a healthy lifestyle and a nourishing diet.
So what should you look for in a multivitamin?
Most multivitamins have a label filled with a dizzying array of ingredients, doses, and RDA. For the most part, any standard/reputable brand, or drugstore generic, will provide a pretty comparable list of ingredients. If you’re in doubt, ask the pharmacist for a little guidance. (I love pharmacists, they’re an awesome resource)
To get you started, here are some things to keep in mind as you’re shopping for a multivitamin:
Time to be honest…with yourself. Because prevention, in my book, is far better than waiting for symptoms to appear.
Below you’ll find some questions to answer. Now, this is not a multiple choice quiz, with a cute classification scale at the end. These are open-ended questions. That’s because I’m assuming you’re a smart cookie. More important than a tidy little category is how you feel when you look at your answers all together, when you read them over, when you really start thinking about it.Most of us know, deep down, what we need to work on…we just need some prodding. And someone to pose the questions.
One further note: these questions are not intended to make you feel guilty. They are intended to jostle your brain, to give you something to think about. Perhaps to serve as a wake-up call. To get you thinking about what you are doing great (yay!) and what you could improve upon. This is a starting point. A time for reflection.
So, get out a notebook and get ready to jot some stuff down. Ask yourself:
Do you get enough sleep for you? This might be 8 hours, or more, or less. More important: do you wake up feeling groggy? Check your eyes: just how dark are those circles, darling?
How is your alcohol intake? One glass of wine a day = purrrfect. More than that? Hmmmm…
Do you smoke? Sweetheart, you really gotta quit. Gonna quote Skinny Bitch on this one: smoking is for losers.
Exercise: are you moving that bod enough? Come on, fess up.
Any idea what your BMI is? Here’s a handy little tool for ya. (no excuses)
When was the last time you had your blood pressure checked? High blood pressure is silent. You would never know, unless you checked.
When was your last Pap? Here are my thoughts on this: Yes, Pap smears are uncomfortable. Know what’s more uncomfortable? Cancer.
Have you had screening bloodwork done lately? Here are some things to consider having done, depending on your risk factors:
And speaking of screening, if you’re over 40 have you had a mammogram? (screening recommendations might be different if you have a family history of breast cancer)
How about STD screening? Once again: silent. With nasty repercussions if left undiagnosed + untreated.
Look at your family history. If there’s a strong history of CAD, cancer, etc…are you being proactive about not following in their footsteps?
Are you taking care of your bones? Not just for the elderly–you need to build bone mass now.
Do you wear sunblock? All. The. Time?
Body + Soul
What about stress? I’m gonna go ahead and assume you’ve got stress (we all do, don’t we?)…but do you have a plan in place to cope with that stress? Short-term and long-term coping, I mean.
How often do you have sex?
Are you happy? Like, really content in your life? Here’s a quick test: how do you feel on your birthday? As though you’re exactly where you should be….or, vaguely dissatisfied/anxious/frustrated?
Do you do stuff that’s just for you? Like, go to the spa, read a book for pleasure, fill in the blank…?
Do you feel fulfilled? Are you bored? Are you pursuing your dreams? Are you working too much?
Eating habits? Big topic. Here’s some food for thought (ptp=pardon the pun)
Now how about Vitamins + Supplements:
Okay, ’nuff for now. There’s more, but I’m going to leave it for another day. Hope you’re not feeling too overwhelmed. Keep in mind: it’s important to take the time to reflect on this stuff and take stock. It’s your body, after all. And it’s your life.
Ya get but one.
In a word: yes. You should be taking vitamin D.
There’s a growing body of research that shows a boatload of benefits from Vitamin D. We used to just recommend vitamin D for the prevention of osteoporosis. But we’ve gone way beyond that now. Seems this is one little vitamin with big dreams. And it’s turning up in all sorts of unexpected places, making itself useful at the preventive health party (mingling, mixing martinis for people, doing the dishes after the guests leave…)
So. It looks like adults with low levels of vitamin D have increased risks of heart disease—specifically heart attacks and hypertension. Taking supplements appears to help prevent cancer, with the strongest evidence so far for colorectal cancer. It also seems to play a role in preventing depression. And diabetes. It also appears to help regulate the immune system and reduce inflammation, which might help reduce the risks of autoimmune disease, and infections such as influenza.
Does that all sound good?
So, onto pumping up your D quotient. Turns out D-deficiency is something of an epidemic. Vitamin D is manufactured in your skin, with sunlight exposure. But most of us don’t get enough sunlight to make sufficient amounts. And we shouldn’t try, either! Skin cancer, anyone? Wrinkles? No thank you. I’ll take my vitamin D in oral form. Unfortunately, it’s tricky to get sufficient amounts in food. Fortified dairy and breakfast cereals, and fatty fish are sources, but you’re probably not going to meet your needs through food alone. This is where supplementation comes in.
How much to take? Official recommendations from the Institute of Medicine look a little like this: 600 IU for people up to age 70, 800 IU for people over 70. But most health care providers (me included) seem to advise 1000 IU daily. Infants and kids should be getting 400 IU daily.
If you’re curious, you can get a blood test to diagnose deficiency. But based on all the research, and the fact that vitamin D is cheap, readily available, and safe, my thinking is that people should be taking a supplement regardless.
One caveat: don’t go getting all vitamin D slap happy. Take too much and you run the risk of kidney stones. Ouch.