Creating Healthy Habits

Key Points

  • Lifestyle choices can contribute to cancer growth and spread, in part by fostering a body environment in which cancer grows and thrives.
  • Researchers estimate that more than 50 percent of cancers are caused by lifestyle factors.
  • Three anticancer strategies beyond the 7 Healing Practices can further promote health: weight management, smoking cessation, and limiting alcohol consumption.
  • Any practice that moves you into your Circle of Health is beneficial.
  • Lifestyle changes impact many health conditions beyond cancer; the benefit from positive changes can be widespread.
  • Two approaches for making lifestyle change are presented.

Creating healthy habits beyond the 7 Healing Practices includes keeping your weight at a healthy level, giving up smoking and limiting alcohol intake.

You may be nodding your head right now saying “I know, I know: obesity, smoking and too much alcohol are not good for me and changing this could save my life and not changing this will likely shorten my life and make me feel bad in the meantime. But . . . . “

We recognize that breaking an unhealthy habit and replacing it with a healthy one is a big deal. Most people need guidance, information and support to pull off such big changes.

We point you to some of the wealth of resources to inform you about these additional anticancer strategies and guide you in creating healthy habits that stick. You will also find ideas in each of the 7 Healing Practice summaries, as well as in some of the integrative therapies summaries, such as the use of acupuncture in smoking cessation, or employing stress management skills to replace using eating, smoking or drinking alcohol to deal with stress.

The first step is to commit to your health.

Laura Pole

Lifestyle, Body Terrain and the Tumor Microenvironment

Highlighted Video

BCCT advisor, physician, and researcher Dean Ornish, MD, explains Lifestyle Medicine.

The real power of adding healthy lifestyle practices and stopping unhealthy ones is in making your body’s terrain inhospitable to cancer and other diseases, tipping the balance toward well-being. Healthy living helps you take charge as your own internal environmental engineer!

We’re already seeing compelling evidence that lifestyle factors may be the missing ingredient of the existing cancer treatment model.

Lorenzo Cohen & Alison Jeffries1

Much more detail is found in the Body Terrain and Tumor Microenvironment section, describing the influence of each of the 7 Healing Practices on your internal environment. Each of the opposites of the 7 Healing Practices—unhealthy eating, inactivity, poor sleep, unmanaged stress, isolation, frequent exposure to environmental toxins, and despair and hopelessness—can contribute to cancer growth and spread, in part by fostering these conditions in which cancer grows and thrives:

  • Chronic inflammation
  • Insulin resistance
  • Oxidative stress
  • Increased circulating estrogen
  • Impaired detoxification and the resulting build-up of toxic metabolites
  • Impaired break down and absorption of nutrients

Cancer does not grow in isolation. It develops within an environment we help create by the things we eat day after day, by our stress levels, our physical activity, our support network, the quality of our sleep, and our exposure to environmental toxins.

Lorenzo Cohen & Alison Jeffries2

Your doctor might throw the most powerful surgery, radiation and drugs at cancer, and even though these therapies might effectively kill most of the cancer cells, they were not designed to keep cancer from returning. Usually some cancer cells survive, and we must count on our own internal anticancer defenses to kill the remaining cells and keep cancer from recurring. We need to “meet conventional cancer treatment in the middle”, letting healthy lifestyle practices carry the baton from there.

Common Benefit

As portrayed eloquently in A Story of Health, many of the risk factors associated with cancer are also risk factors for other diseases:

  • Poor diet
  • Lack of exercise
  • Unmanaged stress
  • Poor or insufficient sleep
  • Social isolation
  • Exposures to tobacco smoke, pesticides, radiation, traffic-related air pollution and other toxics

Read more

Three More Anticancer Strategies to Consider

Researchers estimate that more than 50 percent of cancers are caused by lifestyle factors over which we have some degree of control:5

  • Obesity (from poor diet and sedentary behavior)
  • Tobacco use
  • Viral infections (such as human papilloma virus transmitted through sexual contact)
  • Radiation (including from too much sun exposure)
  • Alcohol use
  • Exposure to environmental toxins

The 7 Healing Practices address some of these factors. However, three healthy habits provide further anticancer strategies beyond these healing practices. These habits can further deprive the tumor of the microenvironment that drives its growth and spread:

  1. Manage your weight
  2. Stop smoking
  3. Limit alcoholic drinks to two for men and one for women per day at most. Fewer is even better: the American Cancer Society now states it is best not to drink alcohol.6

The World Cancer Research Fund/American Institute for Cancer Research includes these recommendations to prevent cancer:7

  • Be a healthy weight.
  • Limit alcohol consumption.
  • Stop smoking and avoid other exposure to tobacco; avoiding excess sun is also important in reducing cancer risk.

Evidence of Increased Cancer Risk

Body Weight

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Lifestyle and the 7 Healing Practices

In addition to directly impacting the body terrain, these three strategies also interact with the 7 Healing Practices and your ability to integrate them into your life:

Potential impacts of a high body weight:

Read more

Smoking and Pain

A 2020 study found that daily smokers and former daily smokers "reported higher levels of bodily pain compared with never daily smokers at all ages."18 The reason or mechanism for this association is still unknown.

Potential impacts of smoking and tobacco use:

Read more

Potential impacts of excessive alcohol consumption:

Read more

It’s so important to resist blaming yourself if you get cancer: Our message is always, "Begin now. Don’t look back. We have no idea what caused your cancer . . . But we do know that there are things you can do differently that will make a radical difference in how you feel."

Meg Hirshberg31

Getting Started with Healthy Living

Anticancer Lifestyle Program

Using expert videos, animation, text and interactives, the Change Module of the Anticancer Lifestyle Program introduces you to the course, and help you make lasting lifestyle changes that will decrease inflammation and enhance your immune system’s ability to fight disease.

Anticancer Lifestyle Program link

This course is offered on a “pay-what-you-can” basis for 90-day access to all course modules.

The Circle of Health

Imagine a circle (or draw one on a page). Imagine or draw the word “HEALTH” in the middle of that circle. Think of some activities or practices that might get you into the center of HEALTH. Write them on the circle, if you wish. Outside the circle, picture or write some things that keep you from getting to the center of HEALTH. Finally, think of what will open up your access to the Circle of Health.

You do not need to overwhelm yourself trying to do too much. Once you commit to your health, it only takes one practice to bring you into the Circle. Once one practice has brought you in, the nature of the circle is that other practices that are right for you will find their way in at the right time. All your practices will flow in an integrated way. This is why we depict the 7 Healing Practices as puzzle pieces forming the perimeter of a circle.

Read more

Lots of different ways are available to create healthy habits that stick. Find a strategy for change that works for you: some people are more successful stopping smoking cold turkey, while others do better with a gradual tapering, for example. Some people find that it helps to add on a healthy pleasure before taking away an unhealthy one.

Changing Behaviors and Habits

Comprehensive lifestyle change, combined with conventional cancer care, is powerful medicine that can help control, and potentially prevent, cancer.

Lorenzo Cohen & Alison Jeffries32

We consider two approaches from experts on changing your lifestyle behaviors and habits. Perhaps one will resonate with you.

Creating Healthy Habits That Stick

Dr. Mark Alloia, a behavioral psychologist who guides people in lifestyle changes offers the following advice in creating healthy habits that stick:33

Commit first to your health, rather than committing to one behavior or habit. This opens the door to practicing a variety of health-promoting behaviors that add up and lessen the risk of feeling that you’ve failed. Ambivalence is normal when thinking about changing your behavior. The process is not about succeeding or failing, but of committing to your health.

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Pick It and Stick with It Rhyme

Takes a few months for a change to stick.
We’ve given you lots of choices, so take your pick.
Then make up your mind that you’ll just do it. . .
Make a plan that fits your life, and stick to it.

Tell your plan to a person who’ll encourage.
If it seems hard at first, don’t get discouraged.
Eventually you’ll notice life seems brighter—
Maybe your joints don’t ache, or your step is lighter.

But that’s not the time to let things slide—
Got to keep on trying ‘til you turn the tide.
Keep your eye on the prize ‘til you can grab it!
Now, you’re rockin’ with a new health habit!

© Laura Pole. All rights reserved.

Pick It and Stick with It: Tips for Making Change

Some practical change tips from the Smith Center’s Cancer Help Program retreats and their Healthy U workshop series:35

  • Ask: “Am I ready to make change?” If yes, continue.
  • Start by paying attention. See what speaks to you or appeals to you, and use that as a starting place to choose a practice or change you’d like to make.
  • Set your daily minimum of a new practice: "I will chew my food slowly two meals a day." then cut it in half and stick to it. Choose something you know you can accomplish. Don’t underestimate the power of a short practice.
  • Expect backsliding so that when you experience it you won't give up—you'll know to just start again.
  • Change your environment to make it easy to do your practice.
  • Tell someone: have a “purpose partner", someone sympathetic to your desire for change but to whom you'll feel some level of accountability. If someone knows you're making a change and might ask you about it, you have extra motivation to stick with it.
  • Track your changes with a checklist, a spreadsheet or some other record-keeping method.
  • Create ongoing support from your coach, counselor, therapist, teacher or supportive friend and follow up with him or her regularly for several months. Creating a new habit takes two to eight months, much longer than the 21 days believed for a long time. Anticipate your need for ongoing support.36

Written by Laura Pole, RN, MSN, OCNS, and reviewed by Nancy Hepp, MS; most recent update on September 14, 2020.

View All References

More Information

Smoking and Cancer

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Alcohol and Cancer

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Obesity, Weight Management and Cancer

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General Resources

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