Sucking It Up: Three Ways to Prevent Cancer

Sucking It Up: Three Ways to Prevent Cancer

Last night I told my cancer support group that I smoked before I was diagnosed with cancer. It’s hard to look into the eyes of people, some of whom are very sick, all of whom have suffered more than I have, most of whom have never smoked and talk to them about smoking. It’s been my biggest hang up since being diagnosed with cancer.

I decided to talk to them about it last night because it’s an elephant in the room whenever people talk about preventing cancer or preventing remission. Several kinds of cancer, such as kidney, bladder, and lung, are especially closely linked to smoking.

People with lung cancer often hear, “Oh, I didn’t know you were a smoker” or “Are you a smoker?” I have heard the same comments about my bladder cancer diagnosis. I’m sure it’s the case that not everyone who says these things is intending to be judgmental, but it’s almost impossible to hear the comments and not feel judged.

Some people with cancer immediately tell you that they have been smokers, but most of us cower in the background. On one hand, I don’t want to be judged. On the other, I judge myself harshly and I feel ashamed.

Either way, it’s usually a struggle of some sort that’s hard to talk about. So, I decided to put my toe in the water. After almost a year with these people, I feel comfortable enough to risk it. Most of them jumped into the water with me, several talking at once.

I don’t know what you call it when the elephant in the room is identified and confronted, but I know that elephant no longer casts such a big shadow.

Our conversation veered from discussing smoking to discussing causes and prevention of cancer. I can’t tell you how many of us have been given advice about how to treat our cancers and to prevent them, often from people who don’t have cancer. I’m going to call it cancer shaming.

We’re told what to eat and drink. Sugar will kill you and wine will, too. Or not, depending on which adviser you’re talking to. Brussels sprouts and broccoli are the ticket. My friend’s niece had Stage Four _____ cancer and she ate almonds and beets for four months and is now cancer free.

When people find out you smoke they might say, as my doctor did, “Why would you do that?” Or, just tsk, tsk. They’re dying to wave their pointer finger in your face.

From telling you to get rid of your cell phone and give up caffeine, to recommending weight loss programs and aspirin, everyone knows how to prevent cancer. And, why is that? Because we desperately want to believe that we can prevent cancer.

People who are cancer free suspect they’re doing something right and that you, the one with cancer, have done something wrong. If the world has clear cause and effect, then we’re in control.

So, I’m stepping up to tell you what I’ve learned after immersing myself for the past year in cancer literature. I’m not going to give you a bibliography, but I will note the most recent source that I’ve been reading: George Johnson’s The Cancer Chronicles, a richly researched book about cancer’s biology, cures, causes, and about his wife’s journey with cancer.

As far as I can gather there are only three things that most docs and researchers can confidently tell you, with broad evidence to support it, that you can do to prevent cancer and its recurrence.

1. Don’t smoke. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that smoking decreases your wellbeing, your health, and that it causes cancer, heart disease, and emphysema. Those of us who have smoked since the 90s are in worse shape than those that quit before then because American tobacco companies are making cigarettes with more chemicals identified by scientists as carcinogenic.

2. Lose weight. Most cancers are linked very closely to obesity.

3. Exercise. Exercise helps create a stronger immune system and produces all sorts of good things in the body to help fight rogue cells.

Do you feel let down? It’s not sexy is it? There’s no magic pill, nothing secret or special about this formula. We know and have known for many, many years that nonsmokers who maintain a healthy weight and exercise frequently are healthier. They are less likely to get cancer. And starting now--giving up smoking, losing weight and beginning an exercise program--will improve your odds.

Keep in mind, though, only 30% of smokers will get cancer. I know many, many people who are thin and active  who have cancer. September is Childhood Cancer Awareness month. If you want to think about cause/effect, let your mind wander among these stories of infants and children with cancer.

So, I’m sucking it up. I haven’t smoked since August 27, 2012. I’ve lost some weight and am working on losing more. And, I’m continuing my active lifestyle, exercising 6 days a week for 40 minutes. I’m eating better and feeling better, drinking less and working on anxiety and stress.

Will this prevent a recurrence? I don't know, but I'm willing to try. Why don’t you join me?

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Filed under: Books on Cancer, Smoking

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