A Very Good Case for Healthy Choices

Appeared in The Brownsville Herald and The Valley Morning Star on October 5, 2014
By Lisa Mitchell-Bennett

October is Breast Cancer Awareness month. It is a time when pink ribbons and t-shirts are displayed at events expressing solidarity with cancer survivors and remembering those who have succumbed to the disease. These are important rituals for our community, yet I hope it is not all we do to address this costly and deadly disease.

There are many things still unknown about many types of cancer. But researchers have concluded, what the general public has not quite embraced, that there is a very strong association between obesity (Body Index BMI of 30 or more) and many types of cancer, including postmenopausal breast cancer.

What this means for our community, with its high rates of obesity and overweight, is that we will see increasing rates of these types of cancer as our population ages. It is an inevitable consequence of the low importance we place on living active, healthy lives. So in addition to educating folks about cancer screening and early detection, we should have another compelling reason for all of us to work toward lifestyle changes, and creating a culture of health that helps all of us reach and maintain a healthy weight.

I was recently at MD Anderson for a follow up on a worrisome mammogram. While I was waiting I met a woman named Theresa, a spunky 60-something grandmother with a sporty short white hair cut.

Her bright pink shirt and ribbon earrings identify her as a survivor. She immediately begins chatting with me about how she volunteers leading an exercise group for seniors, teaching them low-impact moves to lose weight and stay healthy, improve balance and reduce their risk for numerous possible conditions, including cancer, diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

“I want them to enjoy their lives, enjoy their grandkids, and avoid going through what I did. I was lucky in the end but not everyone is.” What she went through were years of discomfort and fatigue from being heavy, out of control diabetes, and ultimately, breast cancer treatment. She is convinced, as is her doctor, her unhealthy lifestyle contributed to all of her health problems, including the cancer.

“Our bodies are not meant to carry that much extra weight, ingest that kind of food, or be so still and sedentary. It effects everything from our pancreas and skeletal structure, to our hormones and mental health.”

You would never guess Teresa had been obese. She shared that she has lost 75 pounds and feels more vibrant and energetic.

“After the chemo, radiation and all I went through with cancer I was not going to let my diabetes and obesity keep me feeling sick. Making changes to my diet, and becoming physically active on a daily basis, first with walking and then with exercise classes, I have become a new person in a new body. Don’t wait until you are so sick it is harder to make the right choices. Each day is an opportunity to feel better because you are caring for your body.”

Certainly there are many people who suffer from cancer and are not extremely overweight or obese. But the numbers and studies show that more and more will see cancer increase among our overweight population. Numerous scientific studies have confirmed, including the American Cancer Society’s prospective population based study of nearly a million subjects, that obesity is directly associated with an increased risk of death from a variety of cancers.

According to another study (McMillin, et al) published in the British Medical Journal, this is not just an American problem as rates of obesity in the United States mimic other parts of the world like Europe. “In both men and women, obesity was significantly associated with higher death rates from cancer of the esophagus, colon and rectum, gallbladder, pancreas, and kidney, independently of smoking.

Obesity was also associated with an increased risk of death from cancers of the stomach and prostate in men and from cancers of the breast (postmenopausal), uterus, cervix, and ovary in women. The increased risk of cancer has been most clearly defined in the common cancers. For example, in males the risk of colorectal cancer increased up to 80% in those whose body mass index was greater than 30.”

The study concludes, “On the basis of these results from the American Cancer Society, overweight and obesity in the United States is currently estimated to account for 14% of all deaths from cancer in men and 20% of those in women.” That’s a lot of cancer deaths that could be prevented by maintaining a healthy body weight.

Of course there are many ways to get to and maintain a healthy weight, but there are some specific habits that can help us prevent some types of cancer, as well as improve our ability to survive and thrive if we are striken with cancer. If you boil down all of the studies, the following behaviors are where we should focus our efforts, according to the International Union against Cancer and other cancer research authorities:

• Include fruits and vegetables in every meal, and eat them as snacks too. In fact, most of what you eat should be plant foods, including beans and whole grains, versus processed and refined, and less red meat.

• Eat smaller portions, especially of the fatty and fried foods

• Move and exercise at least 30 minutes most days.

There are more ways to cut calories and improve your diet, but these are the big habits associated with healthier weight and reducing your chance of some types of cancer as you age.

As she got up to go into her exam, my new friend Theresa said to me, “We get one chance at this life. There are so many forms of cancer we have no control over, why not make choices that help us avoid the cancer we can!” This is sound advice from a wise and healthy woman, because Tu Salud ¡Si Cuenta! (Your Health Matters!).