Cancer is a devastating diagnosis at whatever age you receive it, but for most of us it won’t be something that we are likely to confront until older age. The question I am often asked in clinic is: “How can I prevent cancer?”
With increased access to medical knowledge through the internet, people are increasingly concerned about looking after themselves and anxious about their health. As a Christian, I think we have a responsibility to look after ourselves in order that we are the most fit and healthy we can be in order to serve God and build His kingdom. Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 6:19-20:
“Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honour God with your bodies.”
Although Paul was speaking about sexual immorality in these verses, I think the underlying principle is applicable to our health. We have been bought by Christ, we are not our own. Therefore we need to look after ourselves, just as we would if we were driving someone else’s car!
The difficulty with cancer is that, in a lot of cases, we can’t say for sure what has caused it. There’s often a genetic component, and currently there isn’t much we can do about that, but for many people there’s also a lifestyle component too. In this article we’re going to look at five steps we can take today to help us prevent cancer in older age.
Exercise is key if you want to live a long and healthy life. The benefits are numerous: from the immediate effects of lowering blood pressure and weight, and increasing energy levels and mood, to the longer term effects of preventing diseases like heart attacks, strokes and diabetes. What’s more, studies have shown that active people are much less likely to get several different types of cancer, including colon, breast, lung and endometrial cancer.
These effects are independent of your weight; by that I mean that the beneficial effect isn’t just because active people are slimmer and therefore less likely to get cancer. Although exercise does help you control your weight, it also has an extra added benefit in preventing cancer.
All of the evidence suggests that if you want to live a long and healthy life then regular exercise is key. Recommendations vary, but usually point to a minimum of around 30 minutes of moderate intensity exercise a day (like walking quickly) or 15 minutes of high intensity (running, cycling or swimming).
Diet is another key factor in living a long and healthy life. A couple of well-publicised recent studies have shown that certain components of a diet can contribute significantly to developing colon cancer – particularly over consumption of red and processed meats.
Having a healthy diet also helps people have a healthy weight, and again maintaining a healthy weight is the key to having good health later in life.
In a balanced diet we need a mix of fruit and vegetables, carbohydrates sources and protein sources. Fruit and veg are almost all always packed full of essential vitamins and minterals, but vegetables are generally better than fruit. Studies have shown that eating high amounts of fruit and vegetables protects against developing cancer. Carbohydrates are generally better in the ‘brown’ variety (brown bread, rice and pasta) instead of the ‘white’ variety (white bread, pasta, potatoes and rice) because brown carbohydrates require the body to work harder to break them down and hence lead to a slower release of energy into the blood stream. In terms of protein, beans, pulses and nuts are a great meat-free source. Oily fish and white meat are generally better than red and processed meats, and ideally we would keep red and processed meat portions down to one or two a week. Milk and dairy products are also a great source of protein, and they have the added benefit of being high in calcium which helps protect the bones.
Smoking is a massive no-no. If you want to live for a long time, and if you want to be healthy throughout your life, smoking is the worst decision you can make. One in two people who smoke cigarettes die of diseases related to their smoking. It’s a huge risk factor for many cancers, including lung, oro-pharyngeal, oesophagus and bladder.
Now, it’s easy for me to say that, but it’s much harder for someone to stop smoking once they’re addicted. Thankfully, that isn’t the end of the line. Studies show that you are 10 times more likely to quit smoking if you do it with support and with the aid of medical therapies than if you try to do it through willpower alone. The NHS has realised the dangers of smoking and the power of interventions and every GP should be able to refer patients to a stop smoking service that offers support and medical therapies.
The scary truth is that alcohol causes cancer; there is proof that it causes seven types of cancer including breast, mouth, oesophagus and bowel. That scares a lot of us because so many people enjoy a drink or two a few times a week. The good news is that the less you drink the lower your risk of cancer.
The department of health recommend men and women don’t drink more than 11 units a week, and not more than three or four units at once. For reference, a single bottle of wine is nine or 10 units usually, depending on the strength. That said, drinking any alcohol is still harmful, so drinking less is probably better.
Almost all of us love having a tan. Certainly for me, being out in the sun is one of the most enjoyable things I can do! We love our hot holidays and we love that sun kissed glow we get. Unfortunately, too much sun is definitely a bad thing. Whilst some sunlight is desirable in order to avoid vitamin D deficiency, too much is definitely a cause of cancer. There are at least three different types of skin cancer that can all be caused by sun damage to the skin.
So artificial sun beds are a definite no if we want to live long and healthy lives. But both prolonged sun exposure and short intense bursts have been shown to potentially cause skin cancer. If we are going out in the sun it’s best to wear strong sun lotion and prevent ourselves from getting burnt.
All things considered, none of us can lead perfectly healthy lives – and even if we did we wouldn’t be able to prevent all forms of cancer. But there are small steps we can each take to improve our health into our older age. I think honouring God by looking after our bodies is a responsibility for all of us as Christians.
If you have any concerns or further questions, try the links below or consult your GP.