I was diagnosed with breast cancer at 30. Understandably, I felt baffled and perplexed: My undergraduate and graduate degrees were in nutrition and exercise physiology and I practiced what I preached. So why did I get cancer? And when I did go into remission, how could I stay cancer-free and keep my patients there too? Those questions stayed with me, and from that perspective, I began medical training and eventually studied functional medicine.
A functional perspective on cancer.
While I appreciate conventional medicine’s many lifesaving cancer treatments, I wanted to dig deeper. That’s where functional medicine came in: It looks at the underlying root cause and then individualizes treatment, focusing on the patient instead of the disease. By applying functional medicine to my breast cancer journey I found that there were a few things I still had to learn.
Like many of my patients, before I found functional medicine, I often went to my practitioner to screen for cancer. But I hadn't realized that screening for cancer isn’t the same as preventing cancer. Because while annual mammograms and colonoscopies are amazingly helpful tools for detecting cancer as early as possible—and have saved many, many lives—they aren't actually preventing cancer from forming in the first place.
So how do we actually avoid cancer? Lifestyle change. The American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) finds that most Americans aren't making the kind of everyday lifestyle choices that protect against cancer. In my practice, I’ve learned a patient doesn’t come in sick one day when she was healthy the day before. Changes that ultimately lead to cancer take many years to develop and play out differently for everyone.
What you can do every day to prevent cancer.
When it comes to preventing cancer, one of the most important lessons I learned was that every person has a different experience: different causes, environments, and genetics. And by seeing that biochemical individuality, you can adopt certain lifestyle changes that will help reduce your risk. Through my studies in functional medicine, I’ve found some simple but powerful ways to do that. Creating a healthy, cancer-free terrain requires removing imbalances and cultivating balance. With that perspective, I employ these seven strategies to prevent cancer or stop it from coming back:
1. Eat a whole foods diet.
Choose real, whole, nutrient-dense plant foods and the very best quality animal foods. These are the foods your great-grandmother would have recognized and probably grown. She wouldn’t have recognized modern-day packaged, processed sustenance that passes as food. Make every meal an array of colorful plant foods, lean protein, and healthy fats. Researchers have found a synergistic relationship between obesity-related insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes, and cancer. When you read labels, you’ll find sugar in so many foods. Avoid anything ending in "-ose" (sugar) and limit foods made from flour or processed grains.
2. Support your body's natural detoxification system.
Effective strategies include high-fiber foods that help your body eliminate waste and sweating regularly via exercise or saunas. Your cells are always detoxifying, and a great way to help that process is by increasing your (preferably organic) cruciferous vegetable intake. You have so many ways to do this: Throw some raw kale into your breakfast smoothie, eat broccoli for lunch, and enjoy cauliflower "rice" for dinner.
3. Minimize environmental toxins.
Many research studies link bisphenol A (BPA) exposure to breast, prostate, and ovarian cancers. BPA, which still lingers in some canned and plastic containers, is one of many toxins we’re exposed to regularly that wreak hormonal, metabolic, and overall-health havoc. Others include pesticides, parabens, and heavy metals like mercury and lead. Unfortunately, you can’t avoid all toxins, but you can reduce your exposure. Visit the Environmental Working Group (EWG) to learn more, and ask your functional medicine doctor to test whether toxins could be suppressing your immune function.
4. Mind your gut.
Gut health plays a major role in overall health, and you can employ several strategies to optimize your gut. Use antibiotics only when necessary. Take a professional-quality probiotic supplement and increase your intake of foods that support good gut flora like sauerkraut and kimchi. Don’t forget prebiotic-rich foods like dandelion and raw Jerusalem artichoke. In addition, aim for 35 grams of fiber daily. Fiber-rich foods include legumes, leafy and cruciferous greens, and nuts and seeds. Besides steadying insulin levels, fiber helps feed good gut flora.
5. Manage stress.
Studies show that chronic stress can affect numerous diseases, including cardiovascular disease (CVD), immune and mental disorders, and cancer. Modern life means you’re under almost-constant stress, but you’ve also got strategies to reduce its impact including meditation and yoga. Find strategies that work for you and do them regularly.
6. Exercise consistently.
According to the President's Council on Fitness, Sports, and Nutrition, less than 5 percent of Americans are actually getting 30 minutes of physical activity every day. That’s too bad because just 45 minutes five times a week can improve insulin resistance, help you become leaner, and reduce your cancer risk. Even walking vigorously can help, but if you can go stronger, do it: Researchers found high-intensity interval training (HIIT) "takes less time [and might] be a time-efficient strategy for improving certain aspects of the health of female cancer survivors."
Adopting an anti-cancer diet is important, but especially if you're a millennial.