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  1. Health

Be proactive, not just reactive, in adopting a healthy lifestyle

Lavinia Rodriguez

Breast cancer awareness and October go together. And both of them go together with the general message I like to get across about weight management: "It's not about weight. It's about health!"

As a psychologist, I am acutely aware of patterns. One pattern of particular concern is the self-defeating one I see often: Too many people don't address their health until there's a medical crisis.

Here's a closer look:

1. The person ignores, denies, rationalizes, procrastinates and resists taking steps to have a healthy lifestyle.

2. As years go by, the person ignores red flags showing that the negative consequences of not addressing their health are taking effect.

3. A medical crisis occurs and the person is advised by a physician to follow a healthy diet and exercise program.

4. The person starts trying to do something. (Sadly, some people skip this step altogether.)

Why is this pattern so common? It's partly because of a psychological phenomenon we all share: It's easier to be motivated about something if we perceive that there will be an immediate payoff rather than a future payoff — even if the future payoff is greater than the immediate one.

We also have psychological defenses like denial. We all want to deny that something bad, like cancer, can happen to us, and that something we're doing is making us more likely to get it.

In researching what is prescribed by the medical community today to prevent and treat cancer, I repeatedly found this advice: Follow a healthy lifestyle of nutritious eating and regular exercise.

The American Cancer Society says, "For most Americans who do not use tobacco, the most important cancer risk factors that can be changed are body weight, diet, and physical activity. One-third of all cancer deaths in the United States each year are linked to diet and physical activity, including being overweight or obese, while another third is caused by tobacco products.

"Studies suggest that people who eat more vegetables and fruits, which are rich sources of antioxidants, may have a lower risk for some types of cancer. Because cancer survivors may be at increased risk for second cancers, they should eat a variety of antioxidant-rich foods each day."

Obesity has been linked to many types of cancers, a higher risk of certain cancers returning, and a worse survival rate for some cancers.

The National Cancer Institute says, "The relationship between physical activity and breast cancer incidence has been extensively studied, with over 60 studies published in North America, Europe, Asia, and Australia. Most studies indicate that physically active women have a lower risk of developing breast cancer than inactive women."

And WebMD says, "Women with breast cancer who exercise have an improved outcome compared to those who do not."

What does this all mean?

• Addressing weight and eating should be about health. When you make health the most important reason you eat well and exercise, you are much more likely to stick with a healthy lifestyle.

• A healthy lifestyle is highly recommended for preventing and treating cancer, but the effectiveness of a healthy lifestyle is greater with prevention than treatment. Don't wait to get sick to make health a priority.

• Value your health and always be mindful of the connection between illness and how you treat your body.

• Beware of rationalizing, denying or resisting. Stay mindful and keep denial at bay by surrounding yourself with healthy messages. Try reading, taking classes, joining groups with other health-minded people, finding active hobbies.

• Some cancers are preventable if you take good care of yourself.

Perhaps, in October, awareness should be not only about breast cancer, but also about the power that you, as an individual, have to make a positive impact on cancer and illness in general by making your lifestyle a healthy one.

Dr. Lavinia Rodriguez is a Tampa psychologist and expert in weight management. She is the author of "Mind Over Fat Matters: Conquering Psychological Barriers to Weight Management." Send questions to her at