In honor of Cancer Prevention Awareness month, EWG board member Meg Hirshberg wrote about the Anticancer Lifestyle Program, a lifestyle transformation program she co-founded for cancer survivors and those who seek to reduce their risk of chronic illness.
“Go back to your life as normal, try to keep your stress level down, and I’ll see you in six months for your scan.”
After a grueling course of treatment for breast cancer, this was the advice I received from my oncologist when I asked what I could do to reduce my odds of a cancer recurrence. Although I was extremely grateful for the great care he’d provided, his words left me feeling disempowered to do anything to take back some measure of control over my life and destiny.
So I moved on. But the cancer did not, and seven years later I needed therapy for a recurrence of the cancer in my bones, and was again successfully treated. The original diagnosis was shocking, but learning that my disease had spread to another part of my body was more jarring still.
Feeling helpless, I began researching the role of lifestyle – the choices we make every day – in the development of cancer and cancer recurrence. Surely, in addition to affecting my overall well-being, the food I was eating, my stress level, my physical activity, and my exposure to toxic chemicals must at least have some impact on my survival. I knew there was a wealth of medical advice available to cardiac patients about improving heart health and couldn’t help but wonder if similar counsel existed for those afflicted with cancer.
As I asked around, a friend recommended that I read the book “Anticancer: A New Way of Life,” by Dr. David Servan-Schreiber. The author was a physician and neuroscientist who had himself been diagnosed with cancer 15 years earlier. After his diagnosis, Dr. Servan-Schreiber asked his doctors similar questions about ways to be proactive in improving his health and odds of survival.
Like me, Dr. Servan-Schreiber received no answers. So he set about researching the role of lifestyle in the development of cancer and discovered that at least 40 percent of cancers – and by some estimates, much more – are in fact attributable to lifestyle habits. Dr. Servan-Schreiber’s book is the compilation of his extensive research about the relationship between lifestyle and cancer.
I was profoundly affected by “Anticancer.” At last I’d found ways I could direct my efforts that were evidence-based and scientifically validated. As I made changes recommended in the book, I began feeling better both physically and psychologically.
These changes were – and continue to be – surprisingly easy to make. It’s been an ongoing learning and adjustment process, but I now read labels – on food packaging and on personal and home care products – to know what I am eating, drinking and using on my body and in my home. I eat organic as much as possible, and mostly whole, unpackaged foods. I exercise more and make an effort to work some movement into everyday life. And I try to take calm moments during the day just to breathe, look around and feel gratitude for my many blessings. It all makes a big difference in my energy, state of mind and sense of control.
Having experienced the benefits of lifestyle change as well as an understanding about the difference these changes can make in the prevention of cancer and in survival after diagnosis, I wanted to share this critical information with others. I spent a year working with medical experts at our local cancer center to create an online course guided by the principles detailed in “Anticancer.” Our goal was to create an engaging, self-paced program that would provide the tools, tips and information necessary for participants to create lasting lifestyle changes in the areas of diet, fitness, mindset and environment.
The online Anticancer Lifestyle Program, born of that effort, has now served hundreds of participants, with more signing up daily. Our team is particularly proud of the Environment module of the course, which relies heavily on EWG resources, particularly Skin Deep®, the Guide to Healthy Cleaning and the Tap Water Database. After completing the Environment module, participants will be armed with the information they need to choose products wisely in order to protect themselves from carcinogens, toxins and chemicals of concern found in our daily environment.
None of us has to be a passive victim in the face of cancer and chronic illness. As one of our participants said, “Because of this course, I feel the empowerment that comes when you are no longer passive, waiting for cancer. There is nothing more toxic than a sense of helplessness.”