We’ve all heard the saying “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” – meaning it’s much easier to prevent illness than treat it once you have it. I wish I could’ve travelled back in time – showing my younger self what I would go through with my lymphoma – and giving me the option to change my course. I cannot do that now but maybe someone reading this can benefit from my “mistakes” and learning. Given that it takes many years for cancer to grow to the point where it is diagnosable the first time – the younger you change your lifestyle for the better – the greater the chance you won’t develop cancer.
There are many things in your control but some are not. For example – you cannot measure what’s in the air you breathe every moment of the day. You may not know you’re being exposed to ionizing radiation. You can’t control getting older and If you’re lucky – you WILL get older. And also in my case – some things you know but need to take the risk anyway (diagnostic tests to determine cancer spread and remission, chemotherapy).
These are the most common risk factors for cancer in general, as determined by the NIH (1):
- Cancer-Causing Substances
- Chronic Inflammation
- Infectious Agents
Well now. With this list – you would wonder how I wound NOT get cancer. You see I have had almost EVERY ONE of these risk factors – most of them prior to my diagnosis and then some actually afterwards due to my treatment. The only one I can say that was not a factor for me was alcohol. I never liked the taste and I didn’t like how it made me feel. Still to this day I almost rarely take a sip. Makes life easier for those who want to go out and drink – I’m always the designated driver.
Now I am going to repeat the list with my own personal commentary:
- Age– This is more of a factor with each passing day. The median age of a cancer diagnosis is 66 years old. (2)
- Alcohol– Not a factor for me – never drank, still don’t.
- Cancer-Causing Substances– This could be so many different things. When I was younger, we used all kinds of toxic cleaners and pesticides, not to mention medications and foods with artificial ingredients. I grew up in NYC in the 60’s and 70’s and the air quality was horrible and there was garbage everywhere. Then there was new legislation passed in the 70’s that ensured cleaning up the pollution. This was probably one of the most life-saving things for younger folks that could’ve been enacted. For some of us older folks – maybe it was too late….
- Chronic Inflammation – My body was inflamed – from all of the sugar, wheat and poor nutrition I consumed for many years, I was just about obese, I was stressed from serious life events and a high-pressure job. My inflammation markers were usually high in my routine bloodwork. Inflammation is a major contributor to cancerous cells forming as well as implicated in other serious illnesses such as heart disease, autoimmune diseases and type 2 diabetes.
- Diet– My diet was horrible. I was never breast fed and was given formula – the new wonder product of the early 60’s. Growing up I ate all kind of sugar, junk food, especially after age 10 when we moved away from my grandmother. Almost everything I ate then was devoid of nutrition and in fact had a negative nutritive effect. My mother rarely cooked and so I never learned. Then when I was on my own I lived on takeout and junk food. Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup Cereal was a staple for dinner. I was fortunate to be married to men who knew how to cook and enjoyed it so that helped to get me somewhat on track until I got smart about 15 years ago about nutrition and started making some big changes. But my growing body from childhood never got off to a good start so I never got the nutrition to grow up with a healthy foundation.
- Hormones– In my 20’s I was on birth control. While “convenient” – artificial hormones are dangerous and could cause blood clots, strokes and yes cancer.
- Immunosuppression – While undergoing my cancer treatment 4 ½ years ago – chemotherapy completely wiped out my immune system to the point where it was GONE. It is literally re-growing back now and I have the immune system of a 4 year old. I’m experiencing all of the fun colds and illnesses that children get the first time and then become immune. Almost all of my antibodies are still very low. Not to mention the serious amounts of steroids I was given for treatment and to prevent allergic reactions to treatment. So my immune system is compromised to some extent which means maybe it won’t recognize cancer if it starts growing again….
- Infectious Agents– There are quite a few viruses and bacteria that are now known to cause cancer including H Pylori, HPV, HIV, Hep B and C, and Epstein Barr to name a few. I think that as time goes on – they will find more and more cases where pathogens play a role in cancer development. I have had several of these over the course of my lifetime and in fact currently test positive for Epstein Barr.
- Obesity – When I was in my 20’s I started to put on weight (due to anti-depressants and poor lifestyle) to where my BMI was close to 30, which is obese. When I came off of the antidepressants and became vegetarian focusing on nutrient- dense foods 15 years ago – I lost the weight and was back in the “normal” range”. Today as I write this my BMI is 22.3.
- Radiation – This is a controversial one for sure. We are exposed to natural radiation every day through the sun and radon gas. There are also many other types of man-made radiation that we are exposed to such as: X-Rays, medical tests and treatments, and even cell phone and other wireless devices (3). When my late husband was going through radiation treatments for his brain cancer almost 30 years ago – there were no precautions given to those of us who would be closely around him afterwards. I slept in the bed next to him for 6 straight months during his daily radiation treatments. While no one will directly correlate my lymphoma to being exposed to him after each treatment – given the timeline of my symptoms and type of cancer I had – it was the likeliest trigger. All of the other risk factors I had made my body susceptible whereas someone who wasn’t as compromised as I was might have been able to “fight” off the secondary exposure. Today they give more precautions regarding being around someone who has just had radiation treatments – especially children. I also avoid medical tests that involve radiation unless absolutely 100% necessary.
- Sunlight – I got many a peeling sunburn as a child into my young adulthood. Being extremely fair skinned – I wanted to swim and keep up with everyone else being outdoors in the summer but paid the price. In my 40’s I did have a basal cell cancer removed from my forehead.
- Tobacco – My biggest regret in life was starting to smoke at the age of 12. My mother smoked when she was pregnant with me (this was the early 60’s) and the I was exposed to her second-hand smoke growing up. Seeing her smoke made me want to so as well so I started at age 12. I smoked all the way until I was 25 – when I was about to start a new job and wanted a fresh start. One day I just stopped and never looked back. I wish I could take back all my years of smoking but I cannot. My mother died at age 68 of COPD and emphysema due to smoking. It was a slow and horrible death. So please don’t start.
With all of these risk factors existing through the first 40 years of my life – it’s a wonder I’m still here and actually thriving. In my next blog post I will tell you how I turned things around for myself in terms of these risk factors – which helped to keep me going for as long as I did prior to being diagnosed, withstand treatment better, and then move on to be healthier than I’ve ever been in my life. But if you know these risk factors up front – an ounce of prevention IS worth a pound of cure. I took a very tenuous road to get to where I am now – ideally I wouldn’t have put myself in such a vulnerable place to acquire cancer. Learn from this. Talk to young people about this. Please.