What's up with all this cancer?

So yesterday was World Cancer Day, a day created in honour of all of those who have been affected either directly or indirectly by cancer. After listening to a segment on the radio about World Cancer Day, I got to thinking... isn't it sad that cancer is so prevalent in our society that we have a day to commemorate those affected? Isn't it awful that the current statistics state that 1 in 2 Australians will be diagnosed with cancer during their lifetime? Isn't it unthinkable that thousands and millions of children, families, partners, loved ones, friends have lost someone they love to this awful disease? Those three words, "You have cancer" are the anti-Christ to "I love you" in our modern-day world. It's terrible, heart-breaking, horrendous and something I would never wish upon my worst enemy. This got me thinking....

However, whilst I was reflecting on the sad reality of cancer's dominance in our society, I had a few other thoughts. Before I begin, I want to point out that I am in no way belittling, undermining or playing down the awfulness that is cancer. I too have known people touched by cancer. These are simply my thoughts and my reflections, yours may be different and that is totally fine.

Firstly, let's get clear about what cancer is. Biologically speaking, cancer is defined as "uncontrolled cell division". Basically what that means is that cancerous cells have no regulatory system monitoring their replication, they just divide, and divide and divide some more. This uncontrolled division leads to the growth of a mass of cells, called a tumour. These tumours can be localised (meaning they stay in the tissue in which the original cell was) and are therefore fairly easy to remove with surgery. However, left untreated cancerous masses can metastasise, meaning they break off into the connective tissues (blood, bone, lymph) and spread through the body. This is when cancer gets messy and seriously dangerous, requiring rounds of chemotherapy or radiation.

So how does this uncontrolled division start in the first place? Well it is the result of a mutation (a mistake) in the DNA within a cell. Think of the DNA like a code that tells the cell what to do/make/export etc. When a mutation occurs, the DNA changes and hence the code and instructions given to the cell also changes. Now mutations occur in the body every single day. Right now DNA in cells in your body are mutating, but generally those cells are killed straight away and no harm ever comes of a little mutation. However, over time these mutations increase and may eventually lead to a mutated cell going unnoticed. If the mutation is such that it disrupts the regulation of cell division you have cancer.

So at the heart of cancer is a little tiny mutation in the DNA. What you should know is that the rate at which these mutations occur is affected by many factors, including the presence mutagenic chemicals, oxidative stress, excessive heat and radiation. This means that if we can control our exposure to these mutagens, we can also in theory control our rate of mutation and hence risk of developing cancer. However, that does not mean you can cancer-proof yourself and there are many types of cancers that are not in any way the result of a lifestyle choice, such as childhood cancers including sarcoma. I mention sarcoma because my beautiful friend Dom is a sarcoma survivor and is raising awareness through her organisation, Crutch for Sarcoma. Check it out and please support her!

One of my main reflections yesterday was on the fact that the cancer rate's continue to increase at a rapid rate. To me this indicates that something is drastically wrong with our modern-day lives. If you go back 100 years ago, cancer was a rare disease, not something that 50% of the population would have during their life. If you go back 10,000 years to our ancestors, cancer was essentially non-existent. You either died young in some tragic accident (i.e. eaten by a lion) or you died of old age. There was no chronic disease, and there was no cancer. So what are we doing wrong?

Well, firstly let's consider some things that are associated with cancer. Smoking, poor diet, obesity, diabetes, chemical exposure, sun exposure, stress (and lack of sleep), lack of fibre, alcohol consumption, lack of exercise... just to name a few. As I said before, whilst you can never cancer-proof yourself, there sure as hell is a LOT of ways you can significantly reduce your risk of developing cancer, and most of it comes down to personal choice. What pains me most is to see people all around me treating themselves like crap - eating crappy food, doing crappy things, taking crappy drugs, thinking crappy thoughts - and then wondering why they are unhealthy and unhappy. Sure, being healthy requires a bit of effort and a bit of forethought, but the benefits are well worth the effort.

So here are a few things you can do to reduce your cancer risks:

  1. Stop smoking. I'm not even going to go here, you know it kills you. Find a way to stop and stop now.
  2. Ditch the soft drinks. They are just crap. I don't care if it is 'diet' or 'zero calories', it is artificial, sugary grossness. Drink water, tea, green juice and sparkling soda water if you need bubbles.
  3. Cut out the alcohol (or at least reduce it). Alcohol is a known carcinogen (cancer-causing agent). Whilst I can appreciate a drink or two on occasion (and I do), binge drinking, regular drinking and drinking toxic, sugary drinks is just plain silly. Read more on my thoughts on alcohol here.
  4. Be sun smart. The catch-22 here is that UV-light from the sun allows our bodies to synthesise vitamin D, which has been shown to be a powerful anti-cancer vitamin. So some sun exposure is healthy, especially in winter when your vitamin D levels naturally fall, but getting sunburnt is not cool. Protect yourself by wearing a hat, sunglasses, light but long sleeved tops and pants in summer if you are outside a lot of the time. Find a good quality, high spectrum sunscreen that is natural, because many sunscreens ironically are packed full of carcinogenic chemicals... Best to keep yourself covered up and only use sunscreen/zinc where absolutely necessary.
  5. Reduce your carcinogenic load. Many chemicals that we are exposed to on a daily basis are carcinogenic. These include pesticides on your food, chemicals in your household cleaning products, washing detergents and powders, your cosmetics, your sunscreen (see above) deodorants, aerosol spray cans, candles, incense sticks, perfumes, car fumes and so on. It can be overwhelming, but start slowly reducing your chemical load by swapping chemical cleaners for natural alternatives (check this website for homemade cleaning products), start buying organic produce as much as possible, starting switching to natural cosmetics and ditch aerosol cans altogether (they are bad for the planet anyway).
  6. Eat better food! Oh god, I could write a 5000-word essay on this one. Just remember that the food you eat becomes the building blocks for the cells of your body. Good quality food = strong, well-functioning and healthy cells. Crap food = increased mutation rates = increased risk of cancer. Some key guidelines include reducing/eliminating sugar, processed foods, processed meats, toxic oils (vegetable and nut/seed oils including margarine), increasing your intake of fresh, whole (organic) fruits and veg and increasing your fibre intake. Fibre is particularly important for preventing bowel cancer, which is the third most common cancer in both men and women in Australia. Some more controversial recommendations, but one's that I believe are a good idea, include removing inflammatory foods from your diet. Inflammatory foods include gluten and grains, dairy, sugar (again), corn products, soy and basically anything that is processed. Processed foods are packed full of preservatives, emulsifiers, flavours and colours, sulphates, nitrates and other nasty chemicals, many of which are also carcinogens. On this note, one thing that frustrates me is how many incredibly unhealthy baked goods are sold in the name of cancer fundraisers! There is some kind of cruel irony in people getting together and gorging themselves on cupcakes, cakes, biscuits, and other sugar-laden, nutrient-depleted foods in order to try to combat cancer...
  7. Move. Exercise on a regular basis is crucial for improving overall wellbeing, reducing stress and reducing your risk of cancer. It doesn't really matter what kind of exercise you do, as long as it keeps you fit and most importantly, that you enjoy it! Walk, run, ride, swim, hike, do yoga, pilates, Tai Chi, dance, Crossfit, go to the gym. It not only helps to boost your mood by releasing endorphins, it helps to rid the body of excess weight and toxins (through sweating).
  8. STRESS LESS! I cannot emphasise this point enough. If you think meditation is only good for your mental health, think again. Stress is implicated in 99% of disease, including cancer. Basically, when our bodies are stressed (either through physical or mental stress) the rate of oxidation in the body increases. Oxidation is the process in which an oxygen molecule becomes what is called a "free radical". These free radicals are like out of control, destructive young children - they just run around crashing and bashing into everything, and causing cellular damage in the process. This damage can include DNA damage (read: mutations) that can lead to cancer. So stress, of any kind, leads to increased oxidation, more free radicals, and hence a greater rate of mutation. Free radicals can be eliminated by antioxidants in your diet (anti = against, oxidants = free radicals), but to eat enough to counteract a stressful lifestyle would be impossible. Your best bet here is to take action to decrease your stress levels. Find an activity/daily practice that helps to reduce your stress levels, meditation is ideal but if you can't sit still a simple stroll in nature or slow laps in the pool work wonders for some people. Then make the time to do it... every. single. day.
  9. Let go of old emotions. This is where I will deviate slightly from conventional advice, but in Eastern medicine it is believed that everything in the body is just energy. This energy runs through the body on different meridians and through different centres, but when the energy becomes disrupted or blocked it can manifest itself as disease. Similarly, emotions can become blocked energy in the body and if let to fester can lead to disease in that area, which may include cancer. Letting go of old regrets, emotions and painful experiences can be challenging, but it is also enlightening and uplifting and will allow you to avoid these experiences causing you physical harm 10, 20, 30 or more years into the future. If you can't let go of these emotions through meditation or forgiveness practices, try consulting an energetic healer such as a medium, psychic, Reiki, Bowen or acupuncture therapist.

Whilst cancer is certainly a horrible disease, don't just sit around hoping and praying you don't get it. There are actions you can take to reduce your risks, at the end of the day it is all about your choices.

Lastly, if you or a loved one is suffering with cancer right now, my heart goes out to you. There is nothing I can imagine that would be harder than such suffering and I send you all my loving and healing energy, wherever you are.

Love Erica xx

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