Lifestyle Medicine vs. Cancer

An illness may result in the loss of something of greatest value, namely some aspect of one’s health.  When considering cancer, you may think “I am at risk of losing my health and there is nothing to be done about it.”  But, is this really true?  According to research by Mingyang Song, MD, ScD and Edward Giovannucci, MD, ScD, “about 20-40% of cancer cases and about half of cancer deaths can be potentially prevented through lifestyle modification.”1  Yet, individuals continue to believe there is nothing preventative to be done under the mistaken notion that cancer is about non-modifiable—“nothing I can do about them”–risk factors such as genetics, age, or race.

Enter the good news, Lifestyle Medicine has evidence-based information on modifiable risk factors and the actions you can take to help counter them:

What you put in or on your body, and what you do for your body.

Someone is already thinking, “If that were true, then why do picture-of-heath individuals get cancer”?  Generally speaking, information about disease and its etiology, complications, etc., fill medical school libraries and is profoundly beyond the scope of this article.  Further, certain details of an individual’s life, e.g., childhood and workplace environmental exposures, may never be known and therefore impossible to factor into the individual’s equation.   However, it is generally agreed that 40% of cancer diagnoses are preventable with changes to lifestyle.  Before you write off lifestyle consider the following: 


Smoking has long been linked to lung cancer, sun exposure to melanoma, radiation to thyroid cancer, and Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) to cervical and other cancers.  And, have you seen the legal advertisements on TV with regard to asbestos exposure and Mesothelioma?  Most of us are aware of at least some cancer/exposure links.  Lesser known associations include alcohol’s link with six different kinds of cancer.  Another is Diethylstilbestrol (DES), a synthetic estrogen used during pregnancy between 1940-1971, which resulted in cancer in some of these women and their offspring.  Studies are now ongoing in their grandchildren.  So, the message here is avoidance of exposure to limit your risks.


White Blood Cells Attacking an Invader

Think of the immune system as your body’s own little army of “soldiers.”  A “foreign invader” such as bacteria, a virus, or even an abnormal cell forming inside the body sends the “soldiers” into action to prevent invasion, replication and dispersion.  But, as with certain illnesses like HIV/AIDS, impairment of the immune system can occur.  Transplant recipients require immunosuppressive medication to prevent the “soldier” cells from mistakenly attacking the new organ.  These “soldiers” also may not be able to destroy unrelated cancer-causing infections or cancer cells, hence the restrictions placed upon these patients regarding crowd exposure, etc.


When an injury occurs, the body’s immune system sends white blood cells and chemicals to heal the area.  This will present as a warm, red area around the wound.  However, sometimes after the injury is healed, the inflammation remains.  It is even possible to have inflammation without an injury or infection; this chronic inflammation can damage healthy cells and weaken the immune system, leading to development and growth of cancer cells.


Viruses, bacteria, and parasites are all part of the problem.  By exposure, they enter the body.  Some disrupt the cell communications; others weaken the immune system, decreasing the body’s ability to defend itself against other cancer-causing infections; and a few lead to chronic inflammation.  Some like H. pylori (best known as causing stomach ulcers) and Hepatitis C have treatments available.  Others such as Hepatitis B and HPV have vaccines available for prevention before exposure.  Your doctor will guide you regarding appropriateness of vaccines for yourself and your family.  When traveling, educate yourself about the geographic area and the preventive measures you can take to reduce exposure to pathogens.


Every time you eat, it is an opportunity to put something into your body to make it function better.  Does this mean supplements?  No, real food!  Blueberries for example, are showing amazing potential in studies to not only prevent cancer from forming but to assist in cancer therapy by making the cancer cell more susceptible to treatment.  To see other ways foods can positively affect your health refer to the “The Nutrition Rainbow2.

So, what else can I do?  Shown below are other activities you can incorporate and their cancer-busting potential.

Hopefully, this article has given you a brief introduction to the relationship between lifestyle changes and their ability to perhaps lessen potential cancer risks, all presented in a way that is understandable to those not seated at the science nerd table.  Or, maybe you are still caught up in the “this is too much trouble; this is too unlikely; this is not do-able in a family of five; this isn’t going to mitigate the strong history of “x” cancer in my family,” etc. But, you read the article…all the way to the end.

In a nutshell, Motivational Interviewing, a counseling technique, defines five stages of change:

  • Pre-contemplation—“Leave me alone.”
  • Contemplation—“I’m thinking about it, but on the fence.”
  • Preparation—“I’m going to do it.”
  • Action—Do it.
  • Maintenance—Ongoing monitoring.

Remember, you read the article…all the way to the end, so you may well be at Stage 2 or even 3.  Continue to digest the information and maybe even look up some additional sources online or chat with your primary care doctor or Lifestyle Medicine physician.  Should you undertake to make changes, remember perfection isn’t expected or being broadcast on social media.  Any change, however small, you undertake to promote better health can only help.


  1. Song M and Giovannucci E. JAMA Oncol. 2016;doi:10.1001/jamaoncol.2016.0843.
  2. “The Nutrition Rainbow” by The Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine. Link