The evidence is in: you can reduce cancer risk and support treatment by focusing on six key areas of health and wellness. Over the last decade, the scientific data on the link between lifestyle, environmental factors, and cancer risk has been accumulating at an accelerated rate.
It seems, every week, we learned something more that we can do as individuals. That decreases our risk of cancer and improves the likelihood of long term survival.
Dr. Lorenzo Cohen and Alison Jeffries, the coauthors of Anticancer Living, believe in the mix of six. There are six areas that you can focus on, that will promote an optimal environment for health and wellbeing.
While each of those six plays an independent role, it’s the synergy that creates all six factors. If you’re wanting to either delay or prevent or recover from cancer, pay attention to this episode, because these six factors can radically transform your health.
Alison Jeffries: You know, we started this book idea a long time ago, but we didn’t know it. We were a young family who had one child and what we started to see was people around us making choices of around health for their kids. We kind of reacted to and thought, now, do we want to be doing this?
We started questioning it, and Lorenzo would come home from work and talk about what the latest science was saying about lifestyle and cancer.
We started realizing that we wanted to do everything in our power to give our children as many tools in their tool box to live a healthy life.
So that was the start of our book. At first, we focused on our kids and then we got to a point where we realized, we weren’t doing it but we were doing it for our children.
We had to reassess and start making these changes ourselves. That was really the start of Anticancer Living.
Charlie Hoehn: Why the concern with cancer? I mean, some parents get concerned over a bunch of things, why’d you focus on cancer?
Lorenzo Cohen: Well, I work at Indiana Cancer Center.One of the top cancer centers in the country and you know, I have the focus of course as a scientist on cancer.
But in fact, these same factors that we talk about, the mix of six line up for cardiovascular disease which includes heart disease and stroke for diabetes, for Alzheimer’s, for metabolic syndrome, essentially for the non-communicable diseases that are responsible for the majority of more biting and mortality in our world, cancer being one of the top killers.
Why we tend to focus on this is that there are things that we can do to reduce our risk. It personally kind of hit home when I found out my father at 69 was diagnosed with prostate cancer, and finding out that his father, my grandfather, was also diagnosed and treated for prostate cancer.
I was looking into the future and knowing that change needs to happen now if I want to reduce my risk.
What is it that I can do personally and for our children and for our community to reduce my risk as much as possible?
About Anticancer Living
Charlie Hoehn: Let’s begin with the big idea in your book. I’ve read other cancer books, what makes this book unique, what differentiates it?
Lorenzo Cohen: Really two factors here that we try and balance in the book. One is, the evidence. Being able to provide the readers a simple way of understanding what we know, what we don’t know, what the risks are of doing nothing and being complacent and what the potential benefits are.
Very importantly, we lay out six factors that we can get into more details about.
“They are all interrelated, this concept that we call the mix of six.”
And the mix is the keyword there. The factor that sort of summarizes that is synergy. Synergy by definition, simplistically is that the sum of the parts are more than just a few or to add them up individually.
This is a key factor that’s often missed in this area of lifestyle change is that success in one area will beget more success in another area.
Charlie Hoehn: Let’s talk about what happens to a person’s life basically when they get diagnosed with cancer.
Lorenzo Cohen: Yeah, a cancer diagnosis is probably one of the most profound life threatening medical experiences an individual can have. Interestingly, though, it doesn’t take as many lives as cardiovascular disease.
There’s something that is very different about the cancer diagnosis than finding out that you have some clogged arteries.
It’s not just because we’re still struggling with how to cure cancer, but there’s something about the body in some sense sabotaging the host. So cancer is our own cells misbehaving to such a degree that it grows into a mass or is circulating throughout the body and actually threatening our lives.
“It’s a very strange phenomenon in that way.”
Of course, the first thing that happens is we go into an alarm state, even with early stage treatable cancers. For the first time in our lives, we really face our own mortality, even though we should have been accepting and facing that from the time we were born.
We tend to not pay attention to the fact that we are mortal until something like you hear that you have cancer.
Alison Jeffries: Of course, it’s not just the person who is receiving that diagnosis, it’s everybody around them. Their close family members and their community also have a reaction, have a suppressed reaction to that news.
Lean Into Your Supports
Charlie Hoehn: Where do we need to begin, what’s the most critical of these six?
Alison Jeffries: The most critical is love and support. Because so often, we want to make change in our lives and we embark on that on our own and then we are unsuccessful, like I know personally, I’ve started so many diets tomorrow, I can’t keep track.
Say tomorrow, you arrive at work, somebody’s birthday or their friends are going out for lunch. Suddenly, you’ve already been sabotaged, your best intentions have been sabotaged.
What you really need to do is back up and say, “I want to make change in the mix of six and give my body every chance to be functioning in the best possible way to either ward off cancer or to have better outcomes” if you have a cancer diagnosis.
“Starting with love and support is the place to be.”
You gather together your support circles, your support team, and then you step forward. If you’re looking at the mix of six, you can think, gosh, I’m overwhelmed with these six areas, how am I going to make change in all of them?
You really want to do one step at a time in areas that you feel you can, and gather that group together. Whether it’s somebody to drive your kids to school, it’s an app that reminds you to stand up, it’s a close friend to talk about the feelings that you’re going through, it’s somebody to take a class with, it’s a colleague at work to have a walking meeting.
It comes in a variety of different forms. There’s social support, but without it, you can’t be successful in making the change.
Lorenzo Cohen: We, of course, live in community and we live in a society and we can either harness our community to help ourselves be successful or, the flip side of that, of course, is that community will keep you in environments that are less than beneficial to our health.
When done at the community level, not only are you helping yourself, but you’re also helping individuals in your community get healthy.
Then there’s that contagion affect that we see from the patients that we work with that they end up being the support system for individuals and their community and supporting others.
Ask for Help
Charlie Hoehn: Apart from doing the things that somebody with a cancer diagnosis would do, that you mentioned Alison, what can we do to improve social and communal support?
Alison Jeffries: I’ll talk about some of the things that we have in the book. You know, the first thing is of course creating that team. But I think also, you want to look at yourself very carefully and decide what are my core values right here, right now. What do I really believe in and really want to do for my life?
We need to take 15, 20 minutes to sit down and to really think about what you’re prioritizing. Because if you’ve come to this place where you’ve decided that you want to make change in your life, then you want to take it seriously and you want to really look at yourself in a very honest way.
Write down what you think, what really matters to you, and I think also, reach out to a close friend and say, “I want to make change and I need some support to do it. These are the areas that I’m thinking about making change in.”
“I need some help.”
Take that next step. I think it’s about being honest with somebody in your community that you can say, “I really need this support to do it. I want you to be my partner, my sounding board to help launch me,” so that you’ve kind of committed and you’ve been authentic and honest with somebody else.
Lorenzo Cohen: You know, expanding on this area of core values and being true to yourself. A lot of people don’t take the time to figure out what those are and try and live by them. In doing so, this actually ultimately ends up bringing meaning to your life. This is important for everyone, but in particular, people who have acknowledged perhaps through the cancer diagnosis or in some other fashion, our true mortality and the key is to turn something such as a life-threatening illness that can often bring suffering into something that brings meaning
Viktor Frankl, the famous Viennese psychiatrist and holocaust survivor said this very well when he wrote that, in some ways, suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning.
Cancer patients who are able to go through that process and find meaning come out the other side better and stronger than they ever were prior to their diagnosis.
Put Sleep Back In
Charlie Hoehn: Now let’s transition to the two that I struggle with most I think which are sleep and exercise. How can we improve this and diet I guess goes along with it as well?
Alison Jeffries: Well, sleep and exercise do go together, because what happens is if you don’t get a good night’s sleep? Then you’re less likely, just on the surface, to go to the gym or to be more active. But one of the things to talk about exercise that’s so important is that exercise is something that you can do with other people in your workplace.
There are two parts to exercise. There’s one sedentary behavior and then there’s another which is that cardio workout.
If we’re talking about the workplace, a story that we talk about, Lorenzo was cutting back on his sleep. I started noticing that he was looking grey because he was getting up first thing in the morning and exercising.
“You’ve got to stop, because this is not benefiting you.”
You’ve got to put sleep back in and figure out how to do exercise somewhere else. What he did was he started climbing the stairs at work to the 11thfloor, every day, up and down. He got a recumbent bike that he put under his desk and he pedals when he’s on calls. He has walking meetings.
He has incorporated that exercise into his day. It’s very important to think about how to make this change in more creative ways and not just the traditional way.
Charlie Hoehn: Alison, you just said something that had stood out to me, you said you noticed he started looking grey, is that like a warning signal that a lot of people should take more note of?
Lorenzo Cohen: Yeah, by cutting back an hour of sleep, you know, I was sleeping seven and a half, eight hours or so. You know, I could easily cut that off and I’d be right at the edge of what’s “the recommendation” of at least six and a half.
For me, six, six and a half was not what I needed. A key to all of this is, of course, being mindful and paying attention to inward and external signals of, you know, what you need to be healthy.
You know, I had to figure out how to get to seven and a half hours of sleep, yet maintain the right amount of physical activity.
Alison Jeffries: You know, looking grey, carrying extra body weight, being exhausted, appearing stressed out. These are the outward signs that you are not in balance and you can view it as a mirror into what is happening inside your body.
Those are the outward signs, but actually on the cellular level, it is being impacted. So it is really important to remember and to look for those signs to tell you that you are not in balance inside and that that is what you wanted to do in order to ward off cancer or to improve outcomes.
It’s About a Lifestyle
Charlie Hoehn: My friend’s obsessed with exercise and he made the comment recently that the recommended amount of exercise, the max is like two or three hours based on research and he said, “I just don’t think they’ve done any research beyond that. I think we can exercise just extreme amounts and it can still be good for us”. So what do you guys think?
Lorenzo Cohen: Yes, I think your friend is right. You know the minimum recommendation is 30 minutes a day, five to six days a week, which rounds out to two and a half to three hours across the course of the week.
That is probably not enough, in particular paired with what comes next, which is sedentary behavior. So people think, “Go to the gym, I clocked in my even hour long workout, now I can sit for the 16 hours that are left in the day.”
And although getting that hour at the gym is better than not getting the hour at the gym, that sedentary behavior is adding on risk to other parts of your life.
So you know the key is the minimum of 30 minutes, five or six days a week in addition to reducing overall sedentary behavior and just moving more.
“Sit less, move more is really the message here.”
We haven’t heard about an extreme except again, you want to keep things in balance and make sure that you are exercising and moving your body in healthy ways.
Alison Jeffries: This brings up a good topic which is that we often reward each other for accomplishments with food and treats. A strategy to kind of move away from that is to reward with activities.
So you say, “Let’s celebrate this amazing accomplishment and let’s all go to the park together and kick the ball around.” Or “Let’s all go and take a walk on the new path that was developed in our city.”
Lorenzo Cohen: Or with kids, you know going bowling, going for mini-golf, you are not getting your heart rate up to 80% of max, but it doesn’t matter, you are all standing and moving.
You know when you are bowling, in between bowls, don’t quickly sit down as fast as you can. Stand there and cheer on the next person, it’s really that simple.
Keep Exposure Low
Charlie Hoehn: So now let us talk about minimizing exposure to environmental toxins.
Lorenzo Cohen: Yeah, that is certainly one aspect right there. We breathe, the water we drink and then of course, what we put on and in our body that could have dozens to hundreds of chemicals that either disrupt the way our hormones function, increasing vulnerability to specifically hormonally driven cancers, or that many of these toxins are actually classified as carcinogenic.
In our book, we lay out those different factors and differentiate between the hormone disruptors and the substances that actually directly cause cancer.
Alison Jeffries: Because there are over 80,000 chemicals currently in use, and only a small portion of them have been tested. You can assume that unless you are buying toxic free products for your home and for your body that you are getting dosed with these chemicals that we really don’t know what the effect is.
“So what you really want to do is adopt the precautionary principle.”
That means that you have to assume that you are the one that needs to look out for your own health in this regard. And that you need to harness your resources to find out what is healthy and what is not.
So going to health food stores, looking online. Environmental Working Group is a great resource to talk about these things. There are apps that you can scan the barcode of the product and it will tell you the toxicity levels and what’s in it.
And then you can start to become an informed consumer and you can slowly change out the products in your house.
Lorenzo Cohen: And what I think will surprise people is that there is actually action across our country. So a substance that is allowed in the State of Texas and my shampoo is not allowed in shampoo or makeup in the State of California.
So we believe that USDA and the FDA is protecting us from exposure to things that could be harmful, but that is not necessarily the case. It is actually found in things as benign as our face cream and shampoo.
“Why is there something in my shampoo that modifies the way my hormones function?”
That should not be in there. Using the precautionary principle would suggest that even a low dose exposure to a hormone destructor or a carcinogen is a low dose that we should not have in our bodies.
Keep it All in Balance
Charlie Hoehn: How do you balance this out with having a normal healthy life?
Lorenzo Cohen: In our book, we profile a cancer survivor, Meg Hirshberg, who also started a program in Anticancer Living.One of the classes, they jokingly called “the holy crap class” because there is this huge hysteria that happens once you start reading and seeing and what is out there.
The key is to actually just move into practical and to be empowered in this area. So you ultimately you’re just a more informed consumer. To be able to decrease your toxic load understanding that we live in an imperfect world and this is a challenging area.
Alison Jeffries: And you can apply this to all the areas of the mix of six. If you think about it not as taking out everything and radically changing everything. It’s more a pushing out of the way some of the more harmful behaviors you have as you introduce the good ones.
So as you place your shampoo or your body cream, you’ve made one step and you’ve pushed out some things that have a negative consequence.
With your diet as you bring in more vegetables that actually gets rid of some of the things that you are eating that weren’t healthy.
It is applying that principle to all the areas so that you can make change and be successful.
Charlie Hoehn: I want to do a quick little speed round of products that you use to do what you are talking about to reduce environmental toxins. You two could give me the thumbs up or the thumbs down. Berkey Water Filter, I use it to eliminate fluoride from our drinking water, thumbs up or thumbs down?
Lorenzo Cohen: You know I think that that is one of many water filters out there. I think better to filter your water than to not filter it.
Charlie Hoehn: Yeah. I remember hearing you can either get a filter or be the filter and being the filter is really tough on you.
Alison Jeffries: And you can remember to put filter on your shower head because remember what’s taking that shower becomes aerosolized and then you are breathing it in.
Charlie Hoehn: Yeah, so how much does that cost by the way, do you have any idea?
Lorenzo Cohen: Well we actually just use – we are not filtering our full house system although a lot of people recommend that. We filter at the tap essentially. So either bottled drinking water or on our sink. But it is literally, I don’t know, 20 to 30 dollar shower head that is just like your filter for drinking water and it goes through that filter as it comes out of the shower.
Charlie Hoehn: All right, so I use SPF 45 sunscreen and for a while I was like, “Oh is this adding more chemicals into my body? Is there a cost benefit I need to do here?” Thumbs up or thumbs down?
Lorenzo Cohen: Well it depends what all of the substances are within that SPF 40-50 sunscreen. A great resource that we recommend for our readers is the Environmental Working Group website and you could log in there, and they give a score. I think it is from zero to 10 on how harmful something is.
And there are apps out there now when you are actually in the store you can scan the barcode and it will tell you again what the score is, but importantly why it got that score and that becomes an informed consumer. What are the things that are in there, what do we know about those toxins?
Alison Jeffries: And you absolutely want to use sunscreen. You just want to try and find the healthiest one and make sure you’re applying it regularly.
Charlie Hoehn: So this has been a super valuable podcast. Thank you so much Lorenzo and Alison. Where can our listeners get in touch with you guys or follow you?
Alison Jeffries: Well we have a website, anticancer-living.com, we’d love for you to visit it and if you are interested in this, to read our book, Anticancer Living.