Healthy Living

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.

Healthy living 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

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 summary, 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

Several or all of these factors are known to increase risks of heart disease, diabetes, stroke and neurocognitive disease. Some are also linked to reproductive difficulties, learning disabilities, asthma, birth defects, depression and other mental health issues.

Viewing health and disease as a result of the “complex ecology of modern life” gives a broader perspective. Doing so also reveals many key leverage points in which preventive actions may improve health and reduce the risk of several diseases simultaneously.

Many of these actions are specifically included in current recommendations from medical societies and other expert medical practice guidance. Addressing these risk factors through lifestyle choices can bring widespread benefits to health and improve symptoms such as pain, fatigue or depression.3

“Our daily choices in life have a direct, measurable impact on cancer and other chronic diseases.”4

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 anticancer strategies beyond these healing practices can further weaken the tumor’s microenvironment:

  1. Weight management
  2. Smoking cessation
  3. Limiting alcoholic drinks to two for men and one for women per day at most (less is even better).

A 2018 analysis of data from 195 locations found that any alcohol consumption is hazardous:6

The conclusions of the study are clear and unambiguous: alcohol is a colossal global health issue and small reductions in health-related harms at low levels of alcohol intake are outweighed by the increased risk of other health-related harms, including cancer. 

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:

  • Make physical activity and exercise difficult or even risky7
  • Interfere with quality sleep (obesity is a major risk factor for sleep apnea)8
  • Increase stress hormone levels9

Potential impacts of smoking and tobacco use:

  • Decrease appetite and food intake10
  • Decrease blood oxygen, reducing endurance during physical activity11
  • Interfere with sleep12
  • Increase stress hormone levels13
  • Increase exposure to toxic chemicals14

Potential impacts of excessive alcohol consumption:

  • Decrease the nutrients available to the body15
  • Reduce capacity for physical activity and exercise and increase the risk of injury16
  • Increase levels of stress hormones17
  • Reduce quality sleep18
  • Increase exposure to toxic chemicals19  
  • Interfere with love and support in primary relationships20

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 Hirshberg21

Getting Started with Healthy Living

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

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:22

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 lessens the risk of feeling like 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.

Read more

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 ‘till you turn the tide.
Keep your eye on the prize ‘till 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:24

  • 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.25

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

Lorenzo Cohen & Alison Jeffries26

Written by Laura Pole, RN, MSN, OCNS, and reviewed by Nancy Hepp, MS; most recent update on August 24, 2018.

View All References

More Information

Smoking and Cancer

Alcohol and Cancer

Obesity, Weight Management and Cancer

General Resources

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