Why do some people’s cancer advance in a few short months to Stage IV while others remain cancer-free for decades?
That was one of the big question that I kept asking myself when I was first diagnosed with cancer.
My hypothesis was that those long-term survivors must be doing something extra.
I had so much more living to do. I wasn’t finished yet with life so I created a mission for myself after I was diagnosed - to discover the critical factors that explained why two people with seemingly similar cancer diagnosis and treatment can ultimately lead to different outcomes.
I believe that approaching our adversity with a sense of curiosity can propel us and motivate us to take action.
So I did what a normal cancer patient does when they’ve been diagnosed with cancer…
…I strolled into the bookstore.
I wasn’t sure what I was looking for in those shelves…
… a self-help book perhaps?
After thumbing a few book spines, it wasn’t long before I spotted an interesting cover and title.
“ANTICANCER - A NEW WAY OF LIFE.”
It was the first time that I’ve ever heard of such a term.
Most of you who are battling cancer probably have many many questions swimming in your brains when you try to sleep at night.
“How can we minimise a recurrence?”
“How can we maximise the benefits of conventional treatment?”
“How can we prevent future cancers? For ourselves and our families.”
When I asked my oncologist about any special lifestyle changes I needed to make, I hit a brick wall. He gave me no clue whatsoever and instead told me to live the way I had been living previous to my diagnosis.
Since my own doctor didn’t give me any answers, I had to ask doctor google about “how to cure cancer”.
That’s one massive rabbit hole that I’m sure every cancer patient has gone down in. It’s deep, windy and very very dark.
“As humans we all want a quick fix.”
No matter how much I wanted to believe it in my heart, I knew there wasn’t a magic pill, fruit, herb, or device that can cure cancer.
I’m not saying that we never will find one as I know we’ve made significant and positive strides in the field of immunotherapy fighting cancers like melanoma, but as of today, there isn’t a universal cure for cancer …YET.
However, feeling helpless when we’re battling the biggest fight of our lives can be the detriment to us cancer survivors.
Cancer has taken our health and our peace of mind.
If we can gain some sense of control over our bodies, then more power to us.
In that bookstore, I quickly read a few lines of the introduction that blew my mind.
I shut the book, beelined for the till and quickly paid for it so I could devour the entire contents at home.
What did I read that filled me with so much optimism?
That’s what I wanted to share with you today.
In the opening line of his book, Dr Servan-Schreibber wrote:
Cancer lies dormant in all of us. Like all living organisms, our bodies are making defective cells all the time…
…if we all have a potential cancer lying dormant in all of us, each of us also has a body designed to fight the process of tumour development.
It is up to each of us to use our body’s natural defences.
If you’re able to let this piece of insight sink in to the marrow of your bones, then you’re halfway to understanding and unlocking the changes you need to make to your own lifestyle.
How did I not know this piece of information? I’ve been studying medical science for many years but I felt like I had so much to learn about the human body and unlocking our health potential.
Let me simplify what Dr Servan-Schreibber was trying to say in his introduction, just so you can marinate in it some more:
Everyone has cancer cells but not everyone develops cancer.
Looking back on my journey, I now realise what a profound moment that was. Because of that singular moment in the bookstore, I was radically inspired to make changes to my lifestyle, that I believed increased my odds of beating early stage aggressive breast cancer…
…from plausible… to probable… to inevitable.
I knew that I didn’t have the healthiest lifestyle pre-cancer and I knew that I needed to make drastic changes.
“This is a wake up call.” I said to myself.
A study in the UK published in British Journal of Medicine in 2015 states that most cancers are preventable by 40%.
In Anticancer - A new way of life, Dr Servan-Schreibber discusses the importance of our “terrain” - the surrounding environment of the cancer cell/s that we need to maintain.
He states that individual cancer cells are actually NOT the problem.
It’s when they grow and spread that’s the problem.
If you’ve completed cancer treatment - no one can say with certainty that there are no more cancer cells left floating around in your body.
Those few stray cells can either become the seeds for metastasis or they can remain harmless micro-cancer allowing you to live a long cancer-free life.
So the whole premise of an anticancer lifestyle is to keep our bodies in a state that doesn’t promote the growth of cancer cells. Rather than having a goal of “curing cancer” we’re adopting a lifestyle that increases our innate natural defenses AGAINST cancer.
See the subtle difference?
It’s not a quick fix.
It’s a new way of life.
I believe that something that claims to “cure cancer” can provide false hope for patients.
But a lifestyle that promotes health is an incredibly empowering way for
cancer survivors to TAKE BACK CONTROL of their health.
Halting the 4 Steps to Metastasis
Before I dive in about the lifestyle changes I made, I want you to understand that the process for a single rogue cancer cell to become a life-threatening metastases involves four distinct steps.
Cancer cells are created when abnormal DNA changes occur in normal cells. This can be due to mutagens in the environment and/or the breakdown in the integrity of our own cell replication machinery.
Individual cancer cells escape detection by the immune system and their growth is triggered by inflammation and growth factors.
Clumps of cancer cells reaches a critical mass where further growth is restricted and in order to grow further, the tumour must create their own blood supply a term called angiogenesis.
When this happens, cancer cells within the tumour become even more aggressive and enters the blood stream or lymph nodes and eventually spreading to other organs where it becomes life-threatening.
The whole premise of an anticancer lifestyle therefore can be simplified into four main goals.
Decrease our exposure to toxins and mutagens
Create a powerful immune system.
Suppress the growth of new blood vessels.
Foods that Hurt & Foods that Heal
After diagnosis, I’ve changed to a mostly plant based diet, eating some fish and seafood occasionally. If you knew me before cancer, then you would know how hard this was. You see, I had been blessed with skinny genes that allowed me to eat anything I wanted without piling on the pounds.
However, you can see how unhealthy I was by the appearance of my skin. I had breakouts everywhere on my face and body, my cholesterol was through the roof.
I started my journey towards an anticancer lifestyle by juicing everyday. This is a pretty easy thing to do to flush out toxins, regulate your blood sugar and increase your nutrition.
I gave up red meat, dairy, sugar and alcohol because I knew they were fuelling inflammation.
To further dampen levels of inflammation, I chose low glycemic index carbs and switched from eating jasmine rice to basmati rice.
Increased my intake of Omega-3s by eating fish, flax seeds, avocados and supplementing with a good fish oil.
I also avoided packaged foods for the reasons that Dr Servan-Schreibber explains:
We have been won over not just by margarine but also to a large extent by processed foods, such as cookies, crackers, pastries, pizza, or potato chips, containing “hydrogenated” or “partially hydrogynated” vegetable oils (trans fats). These are omega-6 oils (especially soy, sometimes palm or canola oil) altered to become solid at room temperature.
This change makes them less digestible and even more inflammatory than omega-6s in their natural state.
But these oils have a practical advantage: They do not grow stale.
That’s why they are used in almost all the processed foods destined to spend weeks or months on supermarket shelves…..They didn’t exist before World War II, yet their production and consumption have exploded since 1940.
Chapter 6: The Anticancer Environment
I also eat asian mushrooms and fermented foods such as miso, kimchi and tempeh to boost my immune system.
In Japan, the shiitake, maitake, kawaratake, and enokitake mushrooms are staple foods. They are now also found in hospitals where they are provided to patients during chemotherapy treatment. These mushrooms contain a molecule called letinans, and this along with other polysaccharides they contain in great quantities, stimulates the immune system directly.
Chapter 8 - The Anticancer Foods
When I was in treatment, my mom told me that she knew a long term survivor of breast cancer. Her secret - she ate a broccoli everyday.
CRUCIFEROUS VEGETABLES are known for their anticancer properties eg. broccoli, cauliflower, Chinese broccoli, cabbage and kale.
I took that information and ran with it, so now my go-to vegetable is steamed broccoli, it’s a fast no-brainer anticancer food that I eat almost everyday.
I also take many supplements. Many of which I discuss in this article.
If you’ve read my bio, then you know that I drink a blueberry smoothie every morning. Not only are berries anticancer, but I read a couple of years ago in a scientific paper that showed blueberries were able to stop the metastasis of triple negative breast cancer in a mouse model.
People ask me for the recipe for my blueberry smoothie all the time, and I think the key to adopting an anticancer lifestyle is that it is SO SIMPLE that you’re able to constantly push your pro-cancer body from that red zone to the green zone. It’s not something that you eat, drink or do once in a while.
It’s a DAILY way of life.
Exercise is My Biggest Weapon Against A Cancer Recurrence
“Exercise is only for those who want to lose weight”
At school I was one of those girls that hated exercise with a passion. I had been underweight my whole life and never saw the point of getting all sweaty and hot, so I would find any excuse not to participate.
Sometimes, we have beliefs that unknowingly holds us back in life and in our health. Today I’ve replaced those old limiting beliefs about exercise and now understand that it’s my biggest weapon against a cancer recurrence.
Eating healthy is only one part of the equation. I believe that exercise is a big part of being able to reduce cancer mortality.
I immediately started to adopt a vigorous exercise regime during my cancer treatment.
I attributed all the physical activity I did to how well I handled chemo. Chemo-related fatigue affects many cancer patients and can last well after treatment has ended. Very few patients receive advice about the benefits of exercise and how it can counteract the side-effects of cancer treatment.
Today, I go to the gym to do strength training, cardio and yoga.
Everyday, I try to get some activity in everyday even if it means just walking.
The best is exercising in nature.
The reason that exercise is such a powerful anticancer habit is that it affects many biological pathways at once.
Builds muscle, decreases blood sugar fluctuations and secretion of insulin and insulin-like growth factor (key factors in cancer growth)
Decreases fat tissue - a storage site for carcinogens that have built up in the body
Sweating detoxifies the body
Improves hormonal balance (reduces excess oestrogen and testosterone)
Increases oxygen levels in tissues
It cushions the negative mental and physical effect of stress.
Promotes better sleep
Stress Reduction is Anticancer:
There’s no doubt normal life is stressful enough.
On top of that being diagnosed with cancer, going through treatment and finding what our new normal looks like can make our stress levels go through the roof.
Our fight-or-flight response to stress triggers the secretion of factors that’s supposed to protect us from danger, however, feeling anxious, worrying and feelings of helplessness can add fuel to the fire.
“These hormone prepare the body for a potential wound, in part by stimulating the inflammation factors needed to repair tissues. At the same time, these hormones are also fertiliser for cancerous tumors, latent or already established.”
Chapter 4 - Cancer’s weakness
I believe that feeling empowered in your cancer journey can alleviate some of the stresses that you’ll experience. Therefore a adopting a growth mindset - knowing that deep in your heart that everything is figureoutable can be extremely beneficial in your cancer journey.
It’s also important to do a “stress audit” on your lives because many of us go about our day on autopilot.
If something isn’t working then it’s time to deal with it once and for all.
Ask yourself what’s been keeping you up at night before your cancer diagnosis.
Was it a stressful job?
A toxic relationship?
It’s time that we get super serious about fixing them or get rid of them altogether so that they’re not constantly chipping away at our anticancer reserves.
Good Quality Sleep is Anticancer:
I think sleep is such an under-rated health area, not just for cancer but also for many chronic diseases. So why does good quality sleep protect us against cancer?
We know that during optimal sleep, we release a powerful anticancer hormone from our pineal gland called melatonin.
A study published in Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention, a journal of the American Association of Cancer Research (AACR), found that long-term night shift work among women increased the risk of cancer by 19%.
The study also looked at the effect of night shift work on female nurses.
Compared to their colleagues who didn’t do night shift work, female nurses who worked the night shift had a 58% increased risk of breast cancer, 35% increased risk of gastrointestinal cancer, and a 28% increased risk of lung cancer.
Exposure to artificial light after dusk and before sleep time can inhibit melatonin release during sleep. This explains why long-term night shift workers are at greater risk of developing cancer.
Remember to turn off all the lights in your room during sleep - even a night light can inhibit melatonin secretion.
Use of electronic devices in the home can also inhibit secretion of melatonin. I know I look at my smartphone, look at my computer and watch TV before bed. We can’t live in the dark ages, and one way we can prevent melatonin inhibition is by installing blue light filters in our electronic devices. I’m also currently researching about the ways we can set up our home lighting so it doesn’t affect our family’s ability to secrete melatonin during sleep.
Think about how much total screen time you have before bed? Are you unknowingly inhibiting the secretion of this powerful anticancer hormone?
Decreasing Toxins - Minimize then Eliminate:
Once we’re diagnosed, we’re hyper-aware about everything that is toxic around us. We can’t live in a bubble but creating a toxic-free home can seem so overwhelming at first.
So my advice is to MINIMIZE FIRST then ELIMINATE LATER.
Some things I did to decrease my toxin levels include:
removal of my mercury fillings
decreased my makeup and skincare products and minimizing its use
always choosing fragrance-free when possible
choosing natural alternatives eg. coconut oil vs body lotion
Cook in stainless steel, PFOA-free non-stick pans
Remove toxic cleaning products
Opening the windows to the house to “air out” toxic vapours
Making healthy lifestyle changes that bolster our anticancer defences is an important way we can take back control of our health.
Beating cancer is a marathon not a sprint. It’s all about what we do day in and day out.
Consistency is about asking yourself this question every single day.