Half the people living in the United States will be diagnosed with cancer in their lifetime.
With odds like that, it’s important to know what you can do to reduce your cancer risk – as well as some key first steps to take if you do get diagnosed.
“Every cell in the body needs good nutrition,” said Patti Bomkamp, RDN, CNSC, clinical dietitian for OSF HealthCare. “We need to provide our body the things it needs to stay healthy and also the things it needs to heal and regenerate new, healthy cells if we do get sick.”
Minimize your cancer risk
Let’s start with reducing risk.
Cancer comes in countless types and sub-types. You could twist yourself into a pretzel trying to do every little thing exactly right and still get cancer. That’s because some factors – such as genetics – are beyond your control.
Still, you can significantly reduce your cancer risk with two decisions: Don’t smoke, and practice good nutrition.
“If people are smoking, they have a greater tendency to drink heavily and eat a lot of fast food. It goes with the territory,” Patti said. “So really, the biggest thing you can do to prevent cancer is don’t smoke. It’s so huge.”
Obesity is another huge risk factor for cancer, so maintaining a healthy weight is important to staying healthy. If you’re not sure what a healthy weight is, use this calculator to learn your body mass index (BMI). This table shows the BMI for a range of heights and weights. You should also discuss this with your primary care provider.
“You don’t have to be super skinny. It’s OK to be a few pounds over the ideal weight, as long as you’re healthy,” Patti said. “But if you get into obesity, you face much higher risk factors.”
Focus on natural food and drink
Eating and drinking right fuels our daily activity. It also helps prevent chronic conditions and fortifies us against attacks by various diseases, including cancer.
“You need a certain amount of calories, vitamins, minerals and hydration every day to function normally,” Patti said. “If you’re not providing your body what it needs, or if you take in things that are toxic, you have to provide things needed to heal and regenerate new, healthy cells. We can’t change genetics, but we can affect the cells we generate and stay away from things that are toxic to the body.”
The heavy lifting to keep us healthy is done by phytochemicals, antioxidants and Omega-3 fatty acids.
Phytochemicals are found in plants and help prevent cancer-causing agents from forming. Antioxidants, which help maintain your DNA and keep cancer cells in check, abound in fruits and vegetables. Omega-3 fatty acids – common in seafoods, beans and nuts – also help reduce tumor growth.
While you can take vitamins and other supplements, the best source of these ingredients for a healthy life is natural food and drinks.
Make good food, drink choices
Patti offers some simple tips:
- Avoid processed foods. “Eat foods that are as close as possible to the way God made them. The less we mess with food, the better,” Patti said.
- Eat fresh fruit, vegetables and food high in fiber. “You don’t have to be vegan or eat organic. Eating mostly fresh items from the grocery store is a huge step,” she said.
- Eat fresh meats. “Avoid cured, smoked, broth-injected or flavor-enhanced meats.”
- Drink water instead of soft drinks or coffee. “Plain old water is really good for you.”
What can I do to eat healthier?
Patti emphasizes eating colorful vegetables, such as cabbage, Brussels sprouts, carrots and sweet potatoes. Legumes, nuts and whole grains and wild rice are also staples of a healthy diet.
“There’s nothing wrong with a white, baked potato, but colored vegetables have a lot more nutrients, micronutrients, vitamins and minerals,” she said.
Preparing for treatment
Good nutrition becomes even more critical if you get diagnosed with cancer, especially if you haven’t already made it part of your everyday life.
The cancer itself can sap your energy and change your appetite. Ironically, instead of trying to lose weight, you will need to at least maintain weight, so your body has the strength to fight the disease. You want to prevent a significant weight loss trend.
“The first thing, again, is to eat fresh fruit, vegetables and meat. You can’t go wrong with that, no matter what,” Patti said.
And go for the protein.
“I would encourage you to eat a little protein every time you eat,” she said. “Eat a lot of eggs; they’re inexpensive, versatile and fresh, and there are no additives. You can also go for non-traditional protein sources – nuts, seeds, peanut butter.
“You need to have a good stable weight before you start treatment. Your body is fighting cancer and we’re going to be blasting you with therapies that your body is going to be working hard, trying to recover from. You will chew up a lot of calories and proteins during treatment, so you need to build those up going in.”