Friday, February 10, 2012

The "C" Word

Do you have a fear or phobia?

I really don't like insects and I'm extremely scared of bees and wasps, but I don't really think I have anything that would constitute a phobia...except, perhaps dying. I mean, I know we all die, but I mean more like dying prematurely. I suspect that most parents hold this fear, to some extent, because you worry who will look after your family, and you worry about not having the chance to see your children grow up.

Related to my fear of premature death is my fear of cancer.

Even as a young child, it's threat to life seemed to loom large. It seemed like a mysterious disease that always ended in extreme pain, suffering and death. It also seemed to strike randomly, as everyone seemed to have a story about a young, healthy person in the prime of their life who died tragically from cancer.

Both my grandfathers died of cancer and a childhood friend's mom died of cancer too. Even children died of cancer. A close friend of mine lost a friend of hers to leukemia when we were very young.

My own cancer scare came when I was 18. I got a call from the nurse at my doctor's office saying that my routine pap had come back showing abnormal cells severe enough to warrant localized surgery (actually, lacking any proper interpersonal skills she told me I "might have cervical cancer". This incident terrified me and made me acutely aware of the fragility of life and the threat posed by cancer, and this was reinforced by my mother's breast cancer diagnosis in 1998.

The randomness of many cancers was always what frightened me most. It always seems like most chronic illnesses can be avoided through healthy living, but some cancers just seemed to strike without reason, no matter how a person lives. Nevertheless, my cancer scare and my mothers' diagnosis prompted me to go into research mode - always the control freak, I was determined to find a way to manage my risk. Even back then, there WAS evidence of links between lifestyle and some cancers. I was talking about the dangers of trans fat and the link between alcohol and breast cancer YEARS before I ever saw anything about it in the media. The data has been around for a long time now.

Unfortunately, her diagnosis did not inspire my mother to change her lifestyle dramatically. She still drinks alcohol, which I don't think she should, and she still maintains a higher than healthy body weight. But after a few years of constant nagging and fighting, I realized I was powerless to make her change and she had to live her life her way.

She is not the only one. I have a close friend who was diagnosed with colon cancer when we were 32. It runs in his family, which is his primary risk factor, but my friend is also not one to be too concerned with living a healthy lifestyle. He is physically active and doesn't smoke, but when it comes to food: he lives for red meat and fois gras. Since having cancer this has not changed despite research showing that red meat consumption is a strong predictor of colon cancer reoccurrences. I worry about him, of course, but I have to accept that this is his choice to make.

For myself, my philosophy has always been I don't want to ever say "What if?" As in, if I am struck down by some terrible disease, would I wonder if I could have prevented it? For that reason, I have never smoked or spent time tanning, and I am committed to eating healthfully, exercising regularly, limiting my alcohol intake, and getting sufficient sleep.

Now my friend who had colon cancer does not have children and I wonder if that's what the difference is. I can think of nothing worse than not being able to watch my children grow up. But then again, what about my mom? And my father too, has been overweight most of his life and has never shown much concern for his health when it comes to his food consumption and weight.

Given my fears about cancer, I was very excited by some breakthroughs announced this week.

First, researchers have discovered that ovarian cancer, an often deadly cancer, begins in the fallopian tubes, which means it can now be diagnosed and treated much earlier and may save many women's lives.

Also, fasting before and after chemotherapy may starve cancerous tumours and increase the effectiveness of treatment.

In addition, the Nutrition Action Healthletter, from the Centre for Science in the Public Interest, has a story in their January/February issue about how to lower your risk of various cancers through diet, weight and exercise.

Here is a summary of their findings:

                                                          Ways to Reduce Your Risk:

                     Diet & Smoking                      Weight                                     Exercise

Breast            Avoid alcohol                         Maintain healthy weight           Get regular exercise

Colon/rectum Avoid red/processed meats,   Maintain healthy weight           Get regular exercise
                     get calcium & Vit D

Esophagus    Limit alcohol and red meat,     Maintain healthy weight
                    do not smoke

Lung            Get sufficient B-6,   
                     do not smoke

Ovarian        Eat mostly plant-based diet    Maintain healthy weight           Get regular exercise

Pancreas      Do not smoke                        Maintain healthy weight

Prostate       Don't take calcium suppl,       Maintain healthy weight            Get regular exercise
                     limit ALA intake

Uterine        Maintain healthy weight

One of my greatest motivations for living a healthy lifestyle is doing what I can to reduce my risk of cancer.  Yes, some cancer risk is genetically-based, some seems random, some are due to environmental factors beyond our control.  But personally, I never want to be in a "what if" situation. 
In 2011, there were about 75,000 cancer deaths in Canada, about 1/3 of which Health Canada estimates could have been prevented if no one smoked, while another 1/3 could have been prevented with weight loss, exercise and healthier eating.  That is both frightening and encouraging at the same time.  It means we CAN fight the war on cancer, but it will require a massive change in the lifestyle of Canadians.

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