11:06 AM

Reducing Risk with Healthy Choices

Cancer touches the lives of many people. Dawn Murray, NP and Kelsey Conrow, Clinical Dietitian from Kalispell Regional Healthcare, discuss how personal lifestyle choices affect one’s risk of developing cancer.

When asked how lifestyle can affect cancer risk, Murray states, “Research shows that people who adhere to healthy lifestyle measures have a reduced risk of developing certain cancers. These measures include regular exercise, adhering to a healthy, well-balanced diet (i.e. lower fat, lean meats / fish, whole grains, lots of fruits and vegetables), minimizing or avoiding alcohol intake, and maintaining a healthy weight.”

According to Murray, moderately intense exercise for at least 150 minutes per week is recommended in order to reduce cancer risk. Many health experts suggest those minutes can be broken down throughout the week. The accumulation of that time is still beneficial.

When asked why, Murray explains “The thought here is that exercise influences the levels of your body's hormones in a way that diminishes the risk of developing certain cancers. More specifically, exercise affects levels of our sex hormones and insulin, helps with weight control, and boosts our immunity (which has a role in our body's cancer surveillance). Additionally, there is extensive data showing a correlation between obesity and sedentary lifestyle with increased cancer risk. “ 

Exercised should be accompanied by a healthy diet. “Unfortunately, no diet or specific food can prevent cancer. However, research shows a varied diet of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans/legumes, and other plant foods can reduce the risk for many cancers. The goal is to consume a variety of vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, and antioxidants from whole food sources,” Conrow states.

And while some whole foods can decrease your risk of cancer, other processed foods can increase that risk. “Processed and sugary foods are often low in nutrients and fiber and often lead to increased blood glucose levels. Higher levels of blood glucose and insulin can contribute to inflammation in the body, which overtime may lead to the growth of abnormal cells, possibly increasing your risk of cancer,” Conrow explains. “While these foods may taste good, they contain ingredients of low nutritional value, are typically higher in sodium or sugar, and are often not good for you.”

Conrow describes processed food as anything that has been canned, cooked, frozen, packaged or altered in nutrition composition. Processed foods to watch out for include:

  • deli meats
  • frozen pizza
  • chips
  • cookies,
  • candy
  • sugary drinks
  • microwaveable meals

However, according to Conrow, the convenience of having healthy frozen fruit for a morning smoothie or canned tomatoes for spaghetti can be very beneficial. There is a large variety of what is considered healthy amongst processed foods, including:

  • minimally processed foods (cut fruits or roasted nuts)
  • foods canned or frozen at peak freshness (frozen vegetables or canned salmon)
  • foods with additives (salad dressing, yogurts)
  • fortified foods (milk fortified with vitamin D, or cereal fortified with iron or fiber)

For anyone concerned about how their diet may be affecting their risk of getting cancer, Conrow offers this advice. “If you are new to adding fruits and vegetables into your diet, try incorporating them to foods you already eat. For example, add chopped cauliflower to ground beef when making tacos, serve spaghetti sauce over zucchini noodles or spaghetti squash, add blueberries to yogurt or oatmeal, and add lettuce and cucumber to sandwiches. Don’t be afraid to use frozen fruits and vegetables! Try subbing enriched grains for whole grains and processed meats for lean meats.”

Murray advises anyone with cancer concerns to see their primary care provider, take advantage of their annual wellness visits, and participate in age and gender appropriate cancer screenings per established guidelines. Most importantly, Murray warns never to ignore any symptoms that are persistent and/or unexplained. “Working towards a healthier lifestyle is a process. You have to start where you are and take one step at a time. Every day provides us with a new opportunity to make better choices for our lives and our health. There are many good resources available (in print and online) that discuss lifestyle and cancer risk, particularly the American Cancer Society at www.cancer.org” Additional information regarding cancer services can also be found at https://www.krh.org/krmc/services/cancer-care.