You have the power to prevent cancer.
A lot of it depends on lifestyle choices — the food you eat, whether you smoke, if you like suntanned skin. Personal decisions like these and other factors that can be changed account for 70 to 90 percent of the mutations that cause cancer, according to new research in the journal Nature.
That means by making certain, specific changes you may be able to significantly reduce your risk of certain cancers, including breast, prostate, colorectal, lung, skin and cervical.
"These are things you can do today to prevent cancer, not something that someone else has to do for you," said Nagi Kumar, a researcher and director of cancer chemoprevention at Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa. "Knowing this means you can take responsibility for your own health risk prevention. And not just for preventing cancer, but for other major chronic health problems like heart disease and diabetes."
Kumar developed six strategies that anyone can adopt to reduce their risk of many cancers or a cancer recurrence. Her list comes as cancer is once again part of the national discussion.
During his State of the Union address earlier this month, President Barack Obama launched a new effort to "make America the country that cures cancer once and for all." He put Vice President Joe Biden, whose son died from brain cancer last year, in charge of the campaign. And Moffitt has been working with Biden's office to help lead the effort.
Kumar's strategies focus on preventing cellular changes that can lead to cancer.
"We know that these changes, these genetic aberrations that occur in cells, are easier to reverse if caught early, before they become cancer," she said. At the top of the list are phytochemicals found primarily in brightly colored fruits and vegetables which target cellular pathways that lead to cancer.
"These plant chemicals target every pathway simultaneously to prevent cancer without toxicity," Kumar said. "All we need to do is eat a lot of them."
When Donna Jackson heard that advice in 2014, shortly after being diagnosed with breast cancer, she immediately started to change her diet. Gone were beef, dairy and mindless eating. In their place: purposely chosen foods found to have healing benefits, antioxidants, phytochemicals, pre and probiotics and anti-inflammatory properties.
"The American diet is horrible and I grew up on red meat and unhealthy choices," said Jackson, a retired nurse who lives with her husband in Westchase. "Now I do chicken, turkey, very lean pork, vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts, one or two eggs a week, no soy, no cow milk products. I buy organic whenever possible."
She also changed her cleaning and personal care products to those that are chemical free. She grows some of her favorite and more difficult to find leaves and greens in pots around her home. Every morning she juices a concoction of Granny Smith apples, carrots, kale, spinach, sweet potato or beet leaves, fresh ginger root, lemon and turmeric.
If she and her husband eat out, "I quiz them up and down, pick and choose wisely and then pray that the food will be good for me."
In addition to at least 10 servings of super fruits and vegetables a day, Kumar recommends high-quality proteins, prebiotics and probiotics, getting purposeful physical activity, avoiding the sun and tobacco and keeping up with recommended cancer vaccines and screening tests.
"These are all things we know you can do to prevent cancer or detect it early, when it can be treated and managed as a chronic disease," said Kumar.
If that all sounds a bit daunting, think of what convinced Donna Jackson to adopt what she calls an anticancer lifestyle.
"When you get diagnosed with cancer you get walloped," she said. "Knowing the benefit of all these changes is that you're going to be halting the production of cancer cells, then it's not a hard choice to make."
Contact Irene Maher at [email protected]