Vanessa Wasta of Johns Hopkins University asked Bert Vogelstein, co-director of the Ludwig Center at the Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center, if there's anything we can do to keep cancer from claiming our lives. Vogelstein's response is worth repeating.
"Clearly, some types of the disease, such as lung cancer, are heavily influenced by environmental factors," he said.
Maintaining a healthy weight and avoiding exposure to known carcinogens, like cigarette smoke, are critical for preventing deaths related to these types of cancer.
According to Vogelstein, approximately 40 percent of cancers can be prevented if people avoid environmental risk factors.
Oncologists, the doctors who specialize in treating, diagnosing, and preventing cancer, aren't just medical experts. They're also mortals and therefore as concerned as anyone with keeping their own cancer risks at an absolute minimum.
These are the things oncologists have shared that they do to make sure they don't end up in the unenviable position of their patients.
1. The Breast Oncologist With Breast Cancer
Dr. Maris Weiss founded the website BreastCancer.org. She's helped countless women win their own battles against breast cancer. And in April 2010, she found out she had the disease herself.
Weiss' prognosis is excellent. She caught the tumor early. Still, she points to a few things that women can do to reduce their own risk. Genes are a small part of the big picture, she told NPR.
"The breast cancer genes only explain 5 to 10 percent of breast cancer cases today, and those are ancient, stable abnormalities," she said. "They haven't changed. But what has changed over the years … are changes in our outside environment and our body's inside environment.
"So in terms of the inside environment, with obesity making extra inside hormones that can influence breast cell growth, it also triggers more insulin growth factor." (Insulin-like growth factor is a protein that regulates the effects of growth hormones in our bodies.)
Weiss continued, "More women have not stopped smoking. They've started but they haven't stopped as quickly as men have. We lead very stressful lives. We don't sleep enough. We run ourselves ragged."
Weiss seems to be telling us the best way to reduce the chance of breast cancer is controlling these environmental factors. Don't drink. Don't smoke. Take time to de-stress. Get plenty of sleep. That's Weiss' recipe for keeping cancer at bay.
2. The Surgical Oncologist from Miami
Dr. Omar Llaguna is a surgeon who specializes in oncology, meaning he actually goes in and removes tumors from patients' bodies. He follows a strict diet to keep his own risk of cancer as low as possible.
"For me, this primarily means avoiding of processed foods and excessive sugar. In addition, I try to eat a diet high in protein, moderate in fat, and low in carbohydrates. But the key is to always avoid processed foods."
Llaguna also has another cancer-fighting secret. He does CrossFit.
"I encourage all my patients to take charge of their health," Llaguna told the CrossFit website.
"While we don't choose to have cancer, we can choose how we live our lives and how we fight the disease. I talk about the positive effects of healthy eating and exercise on the immune system, as well as the sense of overall well being that can be achieved.
"I've encouraged many patients to try CrossFit, knowing that it will help them maintain their physical strength and stamina, something very important for those dealing with functional decline after a large operation, as well as post-operative chemotherapy and radiation therapy."
So there you have it: exercise and healthy eating are the key. What's so hard about that?
3. The Head of Medical Oncology
Dr. David Khayat is one of France's foremost experts on cancer. He used to run the French National Cancer Institute, and today he's in charge of the medical oncology department at the Pitie-Salpetriere Hospital in Paris.
Khayat published a book called The Anti-Cancer Diet that lays out his plan to remain cancer-free. As radio station WBUR reports, Khayat follows five essential rules to keep the risk of developing cancer low:
–Don't smoke. Ever.
–Eat lots of different kinds of food. Remember that "eating certain potentially carcinogenic products too much and too often can be dangerous."
–Speaking of diet, try steaming your vegetables. Experiment with stewing too. Get creative in the kitchen.
–Stick to local, organic, seasonal, pesticide-free food.
–Stay physically active. Create a healthy balance between the calories you eat and the calories you burn.
If you follow all five of these rules to the letter, Khayat says, you'll keep your cancer risk low.
4. The Ex-NASA Engineer
Dr. Matthew McCurdy seems too good to be true. The Austin, Texas–based radiation oncologist started his career as a NASA engineer. He helped John Glenn return to Earth safely after his 1998 trip to space.
After that, McCurdy went on to get an MD from Baylor College of Medicine—and a PhD in bioengineering for good measure.
Today, McCurdy says he treats his patients at the Austin Cancer Center as if they were family. "I join my patients in the fight against cancer and provide hope," he said on the Austin Cancer Center website. "I've managed the cancer care of my own family, and I believe in treating each patient as a member of mine."
McCurdy's anti-cancer tip is simple: He eats a Mediterranean diet.
"Multiple studies, including a recent randomized trial published in JAMA [the Journal of the American Medical Association], suggest that the Mediterranean diet supplemented with extra-virgin olive oil can help prevent cancer," he told Reader's Digest.
"I try to follow this by eating a whole-foods plant-based diet that includes broccoli, turmeric, and garlic and limits refined sugar, refined carbohydrates, saturated animal fats, and toxic chemicals and pesticides."
We'll trust anyone who worked at NASA before becoming an award-winning oncologist.
5. The Artist
Dr. Diljeet K. Singh practices gynecologic oncology at a hospital in McLean, Virginia. When he's not busy saving lives, though, he indulges in an artistic hobby.
"I paint several times a week, and I try to do it outdoors so I can spend some time in nature, which I also find stress-relieving," Singh told Prevention magazine. Based on his own experience enjoying art, Singh suggests that his patients take pottery classes to keep their risk of cancer lower.
"It serves two purposes: It allows you to be creative, and it gives you a social outlet. One study in female breast cancer patients found that those who were the most creative had the most favorable prognoses. Other research shows that the more social support cancer patients have, the greater their chances of survival.
"Personally, I think the key to both is that they relieve stress, which causes cellular changes that increase cancer risk. My advice is to take time every day for something that allows you to express your creativity: journaling, cooking, gardening, decorating."
Lots of oncologists warn their patients to watch stress and to find ways to live a more laid-back life. Dr. Amy Lee told Reader's Digest that stress interferes with the immune system, which must "be in optimal condition to seek out and destroy cancer cells."
Taken as a whole, this advice from leading oncologists suggests that we can best prevent cancer by living a happy, healthy life in the first place. Good things, the doctors say, lead to better.