Can your lifestyle be as powerful as medicine? As an Integrative & Functional Cancer Dietitian I have taught for over a decade the power of food as medicine. There are countless peer-reviewed studies showing the incredible power of foods & phytonutrients to boost the immune system, target & remove cancer cells, and promote healing in the body. But what about your lifestyle? Can this be just as powerful?
Let me share a story about one of our members in the Holistic Cancer Collective. She was diagnosed with colon cancer (with spread to her lungs) 4 years ago and started working with us 2 years ago. She began by removing sugar from her diet & adding in lots of anticancer plants & nutrients using what she learned from our Nutrition Solutions for Cancer Recovery course. This in combination with her treatment kept things stable but didn’t seem to be enough to reverse her disease.
Over the past year she started adding in more and more targeted lifestyle strategies in addition to her dietary changes. Here’s how she’s doing now:
“I wanted to give you an update on how things are going for me. I had scans and a check-up last Friday and got fantastic news – my CEA (cancer marker) has decreased 80% and my lung nodules have decreased 17-20%! That’s the first time the word decreased has been spoken by my Drs regarding these nodules. The medication I am taking now is only meant to stabilize disease and has not shown any meaningful reduction in tumors in prior studies.
I really attribute the current success to several strategies I have implemented because of the HCC along with my acupuncturist. I am now a firm believer in the seasonal fast and will be doing that again in the fall. I have had so many compliments on my skin and coloring and my energy levels are amazing. I have also put in practice a sacred start to my day which includes stretching, meditating, reading, exercise, and a cold shower. I continue to eat a plant strong diet with little/no added sugar. My acupuncturist has started a new treatment targeting my lungs over the last few sessions. I’ve even had the energy and desire to work a little. All in all, I feel great. Thanks for all you are doing; I’ve really enjoyed putting into practice the new strategies you’ve shared with us over the last several months!”
Based on those results I’d say “YES” lifestyle can be as powerful as medicine. And actually there are many studies that agree.
10 Anticancer Lifestyle Habits
Let’s dive deeper into my “Top 10” favorite anticancer lifestyle strategies that you can add to your routine to support your recovery and help you stay cancer-free.
1. Reduce Your Toxic Burden
Toxic chemicals are a major driving force of cancer. There are hundreds of chemicals that have been identified as carcinogenic that we are exposed to every day; in our air, water, food, cosmetics, cleaning products, etc. And although our bodies have been designed to handle the normal toxic byproducts of being alive, our current load of toxic exposure is more than most of us can manage.
When your body is burdened by high levels of toxins, your detoxification systems (lymph, liver, gut, kidneys, skin, & lungs) become sluggish and waste starts to build up. The accumulation of both toxins and wastes contributes to DNA & cellular damage and ultimately disease formation.
Want to read more about Toxins & Cancer? (1, 2, 3, 4)
The first step is to reduce your toxic load. And in order to do this you need to identify where you’re currently being exposed. You can use resources like the Environmental Working Group to help you both identify the sources of toxins in your life and begin to trade them out for healthier options. You can choose organic foods, filter your water, and drink less alcohol. These resources on our website may also be helpful (1, 2).
You can also take steps to support your detoxification pathways. Optimizing your hydration, eating lots of fiber-rich foods (especially dark leafy greens & cruciferous veggies), exercising, & sweating can all be very helpful. I also suggest moving through an intentional Detox at least once a season. On the Shop Page you can find our Seasonal Detox Guide to help you do this.
2. Minimize Stress
Most of the cancer patients I have worked with have reported dealing with high stress in the months or years leading up to their cancer diagnosis. This could be stress from work, home, family, friends, or even just the world we live in. I wouldn’t be surprised if research years from now shows that the most recent coronavirus pandemic and resulting stress from that caused an increase in cancer numbers.
Stress is a normal part of life and definitely not always bad. The problem though is when stress is constant and high. Our modern day lives are very stressful and unfortunately normalized or even worn as a badge of honor. Without any regard to how chronic stress affects the body.
Most notably stress reduces the immune system; which is our primary defense against cancer. Stress also causes increased inflammation in the body, increased blood sugar levels, and disrupted sleep patterns. All of these factors create an environment in your body that can allow cancer to grow.
Want to read more about Stress & Cancer? (1, 2, 3, 4)
The first step is to take an honest look at the sources of stress in your life. Can any of them be changed? Yes, I know this can be scary and it might require some uncomfortable conversations but it’s critical for your health. Remove any stressors that are possible and reduce as many of the others as you can.
The next step is to add practices to your day that can help you release your stress & boost your mood. This could be exercise, meditation, breathwork, taking a hot bath, calling a friend, watching a funny movie, or dozens of other options that feel good to you. Check out this article on our website for more ideas.
3. Restful & Restorative Sleep
When we sleep we restore the body. It’s when detoxification & autophagy happen. It’s when the immune system gets a reboot and when muscles & tissues repair. When we’re not sleeping well (or enough) inflammation markers go up, immunity drops, & blood sugar goes up. We’re also more prone to weight gain, mood imbalances, and less resilient to stress.
Disruptions in the body’s “biological clock,” which controls sleep and thousands of other functions, may also raise the odds of cancers of the breast, colon, ovaries, and prostate. Research has also shown that exposure to light while working overnight shifts for several years can increase cancer risk; most likely due to the reduction in melatonin levels which can encourage cancer to grow. (read more by clicking the link below – #3).
There’s even been some research to show that poor sleep quality can make cancer more aggressive and more difficult to treat (read more by clicking the link below – #4).
Want to read more about Sleep & Cancer? (1, 2, 3, 4)
The first step is to make sure you’re getting enough sleep. This means at least 7 hours a night for most people. In order to do this you need to work backwards from the time you have to get up in order to know when you should be heading to bed.
You can also encourage better & deeper sleep with some helpful sleep habits, like not eating within 3 hours of bedtime, adding in a relaxing bedtime routine, turning off all electronics at least 30 minutes before heading to bed, and optimizing your sleep environment. For more ideas of how to enhance your sleep check out this article on our website.
4. Daily Exercise
My guess is that it’s no surprise for you to see exercise on this list, right? Exercise has so many health benefits that many experts agree that if it could be packaged into a pill it would be the most prescribed pill on the planet!
When it comes to cancer, exercise can enhance treatment and prevent cancer from forming in the first place. There is evidence showing decreased cancer risk for 13 different cancers; with the most support against colon, breast, and endometrial cancers. Exercise also helps to make the body less hospitable to cancer by lowering inflammation, insulin, & blood sugar levels, enhancing immunity, & supporting detoxification.
Another interesting benefit of exercise comes from its ability to increase blood flow and oxygenation of cells, including cancer cells. When cancer cells are bathed in oxygen, their activity slows. This can reduce the cancer’s ability to grow and spread; which prevents the development of a more aggressive or dangerous cancer.
Want to read more about Exercise & Cancer? (1, 2, 3, 4)
The goal is to get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise each week…or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity exercise based on the research. This is equal to just 30 minutes, 5 days per week. And there are many activities that can count towards this goal; walking, jogging, swimming, bicycling, dancing, boxing, yoga, pilates, house cleaning, yard work…you get the idea.
Once you’ve reached this goal then make sure you’re mixing up your exercise with some strength training and stretching too. There is also some evidence to suggest a linear relationship between the amount of exercise and disease risk; meaning the more hours spent doing physical activity the lower the risk of disease or death. Of course this can be overdone but aiming for 30-60 minutes most days of the week would be a fantastic long-term goal. For more ideas of how to fit exercise into your weekly plan check out this article from our website.
5. Fasting Strategies
Fasting is one of the most powerful strategies we have against cancer and truthfully it’s my #1 tool that I teach to clients. There are many studies supporting my belief. Fasting can lower inflammation & blood sugar markers, improve heart health & insulin sensitivity, optimize detoxification, boost cellular repair, enhance immunity, and even support longevity!
All of these benefits can help to support cancer recovery and keep you cancer-free. Fasting can even enhance cancer treatment and minimize the toxicity of those treatments on healthy cells. It is truly a win-win and much easier to implement than most people think.
Want to read more about Fasting & Cancer? (1, 2, 3, 4)
If you’re brand new to fasting the best way to get started is by extending your overnight fast. Try to finish dinner at least 3 hours before going to bed and then don’t eat breakfast until you’ve fasted for at least 12 hours…ideally 13-14 hours if that isn’t too hard to do.
The next step is to experiment with intermittent fasting by extending that fast to 16-18 hours a few times a week; ideally by eating dinner earlier rather than skipping breakfast. And then eventually working your way up to an extended fast (3-5 days) every 3-4 months. In the Holistic Cancer Collective we move through a 5-Day Modified Fast & Detox as a group every season.
6. Daily Meditation & Gratitude Practice
Meditation involves calming the mind and body in order to relieve anxiety, stress, pain, and to focus your body’s resources on healing. The benefits of meditation range from improved sleep & mood, to a healthier heart & brain, to a stronger immune system. Meditation has also been shown to both strengthen & lengthen telomere strands. Telomeres are the “end caps” of chromosomes that protect them from fraying. This helps to slow cellular aging. Meditation can even increase melatonin levels; which is an important anticancer hormone.
Meditation also helps us more effectively process emotions, thus decreasing incidences of anger, depression, and anxiety. This is important because these harmful emotions release a cascade of hormones within the body that can, over time, degrade bodily tissues and suppress immunity making us more at risk for cancer.
When we add a Gratitude practice to our meditation routine the benefits are exponential. Gratitude & appreciation provide us with the highest energetic vibration. And research supports this by showing how a daily gratitude practice can improve sleep, enhance immunity, increase energy, and even help us live longer.
Want to read more about Meditation, Gratitude, & Cancer? (1, 2, 3, 4)
There are many different types of meditation you can experiment with. My suggestion would be to try a few to see which ones resonate the most for you. You may enjoy a deep breathing meditation, or a guided meditation, or a progressive muscle relaxation body scan. You can also try moving meditations or loving-kindness meditations. With so many to choose from I’m confident you’ll find one (or several) you enjoy. A simple Google search will give you lots of ways to get started and to help you with your daily gratitude practice you may appreciate this article on my website.
The most important step is to block time off on your calendar to do it; even if it’s only 5 or 10 minutes. Once you get in the habit of doing it and enjoy the feeling it provides, I have no doubt you’ll want to extend it.
7. Time in Nature & Forest Bathing
Humans belong outside. We’ve spent millenia living close to the earth and as we become less and less connected to the rhythms of nature the more health issues we see. An EPA study found that Americans spend approximately 90 percent of their time indoors (or 22 hours a day)! For many people this causes disrupted sleep cycles & poor sleep, fatigue, reduced brain function, increased anxiety & depression, & deficient levels of vitamin D.
Spending time in nature provides a long list of health benefits, like reduced stress, anxiety, depression, & anger, along with improved sleep, better energy, and healthier hearts. When that time is spent under trees we also receive enhanced immune activity thanks to the phytoncides found in forest air that can increase the activity of natural killer cells.
This can be powerful medicine in keeping us cancer-free but also in helping us heal. I encourage you to read (or re-read) Dean’s story in this article on my website to see how time in nature helped cure his cancers.
Want to read more about Nature, Forest Bathing, & Cancer? (1, 2, 3, 4)
Much like with everything else we’ve mentioned so far, the best place to start is to mark time off on your calendar to simply get outside, in the fresh air & sunshine…even if that’s just your backyard or local park. You can combine this with exercise at first but eventually I’d love to see you get to a place where you can simply “be” in nature and mindfully soak up the beauty all around you. This is truly the gift of forest bathing; which is more of a mindfulness meditation than anything else.
Once you’re in a routine of getting into nature then see if you can add in a “Sit Spot” session 3 times per week for at least 20 minutes. Find a place to sit then use the first 10 minutes for mindful attention to the forest (or other natural spot) using all of your senses. The second 10 minutes can be used for meditation &/or journaling. Might as well take advantage of some “grounding” while you’re there as well (bare feet or hands on the ground). Work up to longer intervals with the occasional 3-4 hour session when possible or I dare say even a whole weekend in the woods. 😉
8. Hot & Cold Exposure
Exposure to heat & cold activate something in the body known as hormetic stress. Hormesis refers to the adaptive responses made in a body when presented with moderate challenges. Hormetic stress has been shown to improve immune function, lower inflammation, increase antioxidant levels, provide quicker recovery to illness or injury, improve sleep & mood, and lower blood pressure.
Cold temperatures trigger a fight-or-flight response that initially releases stress hormones quickly followed by endorphins & oxytocin. This provides a boost in both mood & energy as well as feelings of relaxation. Cold temperatures have also been shown to activate the immune system and decrease pain. It increases antioxidants and helps to protect the body from inflammation.
Hot temperatures can also trigger a hormetic response. Much like cold exposure, heat exposure triggers oxidative stress and shock proteins that reverse damage from sudden changes in temperature, protect your cells, and trigger full-body repair. Heat exposure ultimately makes the proteins in your cells more resilient to stress and slows down cellular aging plus (bonus!) cancer cells typically can’t survive in temperatures above 40C (104F).
Want to read more about Hot & Cold Therapies & Cancer? (1, 2, 3, 4)
The best way to get started with this lifestyle behavior is to simply not avoid the weather. Go outside and take a walk in the heat of summer or the cold of winter. Don’t hide away from what’s happening outside. You can also add in Infrared Sauna sessions (if you have access to one) or take a hot Epsom Salt Bath a few times a week.
To add more cold exposure simply end your normal shower with a blast of cold. Or take a dip in a cold lake, river, or ocean when you have the opportunity. For more ideas of how to add in some intentional hormetic stress to your week check out this article on our website.
9. Emotional Healing & Forgiveness
Second only to food, emotions and thought patterns are our primary epigenetic modifiers. This means that what you’re thinking and how you’re feeling can actually change the way your genes are expressed! Your mental and emotional state directly impacts your cells, your immune system, your digestion, your hormonal system, your nervous system…everything.
Poorly healed emotional scars drain a significant amount of energy and hamper the body’s capacity for self defense. A study of more than 10,000 women in Finland showed that the loss of an important emotional relationship doubled their risk for breast cancer.
The immune system (NK cells, T cells, B cells) is particularly sensitive to feelings of helplessness, powerlessness, & lack of hope. Sometimes it’s the “icing on the cake” that can allow cancer to grow and thrive. Now this doesn’t mean we’re never allowed to have negative feelings, it just means we don’t want to get “stuck” in those feelings.
Want to read more about Emotional Healing & Cancer? (1, 2, 3, 4)
The first step is to identify what emotions you’re actually holding in your body, mind, or spirit. Is their unresolved trauma, grief, loss, anger, fear, loneliness, powerlessness, or hopelessness. These emotions produce the lowest vibrational energy (the opposite of gratitude & appreciation) and we cannot thrive at this vibration.
The next step is to begin to release those emotions and start moving up the energetic scale. We can do this by doing practices that connect us to our life force; like meditation, yoga, qi gong, chanting, breathwork, prayer, or being in nature & grounding. We can also add a daily gratitude practice to start shifting our emotions to more positive thoughts while practicing forgiveness can teach us to think healing thoughts. For more ideas of how to ramp up your emotional wellness check out this article on our website.
10. Community & Connection
The final lifestyle behavior that can enhance cancer recovery and help you stay cancer-free is cultivating a community of love and support. Humans have evolved to live in community. We thrive in groups and are healthier when we have the support of others. And research is supporting this too.
Social support, whether from a trusted group or valued individual, has been shown to reduce the psychological and physiological consequences of stress, and may enhance immune function. Social networks, whether formal (such as a church or social club) or informal (meeting with friends) provide a sense of belonging, security, and community and is now proved to be a literal life-saver.
People that are supported by close relationships with friends, family, or fellow members of church, work, or other support groups are less vulnerable to ill health and premature death. Even those with cancer or heart disease have higher survival rates if they have strong social support.
Want to read more about Social Support & Cancer? (1, 2, 3, 4)
The take home lesson here is that nobody does well alone. Lean on your support network, ask for help when you need it, and take time to connect with your friends and loved ones on a regular basis. Perhaps even this needs to get on the calendar to make sure it happens.
And if you feel like your network of like-minded friends is smaller than you’d like, then start to seek out new relationships. You’re never too old to make new friends. Put yourself out there and connect with people at your church, yoga studio, a new class you’ve been wanting to try, or even online in groups like the Holistic Cancer Collective.
Take The First Step
There are a lot of things you can do to enhance your recovery and help you stay cancer-free. By taking a holistic approach to your healing you can access a whole host of practices that will help you; like the 10 lifestyle behaviors I highlighted in this article:
- Reduce Your Toxic Burden
- Minimize Stress
- Restful & Restorative Sleep
- Daily Exercise
- Fasting Strategies
- Daily Meditation & Gratitude Practice
- Time in Nature & Forest Bathing
- Hot & Cold Exposure
- Emotional Healing & Forgiveness
- Community & Connection
Start with one, get into a routine with it, and then add another. Before long you’ll have all 10 practices integrated into your routine. I personally like to layer many of these practices. Here’s a peek at my morning routine which helps me check off at least 5 of these practices.
After the kids head off for school I head outside with the dog for a 30-minute walk…regardless of the weather. 😜 Most of our walk is in the woods. When I get towards the end, before we leave the forest, I’ll stop and do a bit of yoga and then sit under a tree. Here I do 10-minutes of forest bathing and then another 10-15 minutes of meditation. We finish our walk and head back. Once I get home I journal & set some intentions for the day, then finish my routine with a cold shower before getting ready to work.
This has become so ingrained in my routine now that my day just doesn’t feel the same when I skip it. That’s my goal for you. Find a routine that’s not only sustainable but fills your cup and leaves you feeling so nourished and good that skipping a day is hard.
If you’d like more support in crafting your ideal anticancer diet & lifestyle then the next step is to book a discovery call where we can get to know you and your goals better and help you find the level of support that will best meet your needs.
Click here to book a 20-minute “Strategy Session”.
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