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Improving your odds: Do healthy habits help?

  • By Ronni Gordon
  • September, 2012
  • published in: Health & Wellness

As an avid tennis player, runner and healthy eater, I was shocked to discover, at age 48, that I had acute myeloid leukemia, a cancer of the blood. I had done everything right, and I asked, “Why me?”

Ironically, my doctors at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston said that since I was otherwise healthy, I would do well through chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant. I needed my strength over the course of five years, as I had two relapses, five rounds of chemotherapy and four bone marrow transplants, the last of which, in 2008, has kept me in remission and allowed me to return to the activities I love.

Many people know of stories like mine or hear about the health nut or runner who dies of a heart attack or the many women who exercise and eat well who get cancer anyway.

Some people ask, why bother?

“Although some people just have bad luck, healthy behaviors do lead to better health most of the time,” said Dr. David Artzerounian, chief medical officer at MassMutual and a member of the Board of Directors of the New England chapter of the American Cancer Society.

Here’s what the American Cancer Society web site says: “For the great majority of Americans who do not use tobacco, the most important modifiable determinants of cancer risk are weight control, dietary choices, and levels of physical activity. Although genetic susceptibility influences the risk of cancer, most of the variation in cancer risk across populations and among individuals is due to factors that are not inherited.”

So what exactly is healthy behavior? Often, conflicting studies come out one after another, causing some people to just throw up their hands.

“When findings come out in the newspaper, it’s often from a single study,” said Karen Basen-Engquist, a professor in the Department of Behavioral Science at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, rated the top cancer hospital in the country by U.S. News & World Report. “You need to look at all the evidence.” Basen-Engquist suggests checking the web sites of the American Cancer Society and the Centers for Disease Control because these organizations have looked at all the information.

“They offer the same recommendations for exercise at moderate or higher intensity five or more days a week,” she said. “The strongest associations are seen with colon cancer, post-menopausal breast cancer and endometrial cancer, while some cancers don’t show any association with physical activity and obesity.”

As for diet, the general recommendations are to eat at least two and a half cups of vegetables and fruits a day, to eat less red meat and processed food, to choose whole grains, and to limit intake of high-sugar foods and alcohol.

Elisabeth Moore, a dietitian at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, said these 10 foods have excellent cancer-fighting qualities: salmon, beans, walnuts, avocado, blueberries, steel cut oats, flax seeds, pomegranates, kale and spinach.

Physical activity has the most direct effects on prevention of heart disease, according to Elizabeth O’Neill, assistant professor of exercise and sport studies at Springfield College. “There are changes in the body with cardiovascular activity that make it easier to take up oxygen,” she explained. “It’s going to improve the heart’s efficiency. Heart attacks result from a deficiency of oxygen flow to the heart.”

Research, like the review published by the Journal of the National Cancer Institute in May 2012, also shows that exercise can lower survivors’ risk of death from cancer and other causes.

Whether you’re talking about eating well or exercising, “there are no guarantees, but you have improved your odds,” said MD Anderson’s Basen-Engquist. “There are always examples of people who do everything right and get cancer and people who do everything wrong and live to be 100,” she said. “But if there was a way to improve your odds, would you do it?” she asked.

“Of course you would,” she said.

Wouldn’t you?

Improving your odds: Do healthy habits help?

About the author

Ronni Gordon is a Western Massachusetts freelance writer who has been published in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer and others. Her blog, Running for My Life, chronicles her battle against leukemia.

The content on this web page has not been previously published and is sponsored by MassMutual.

MassMutual Financial Group is a marketing name for Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company (MassMutual) and its affiliated companies and sales representatives.


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