Oncologists Share 8 Simple Healthy Habits

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What you eat can reduce — or raise — your risk for cancer. That’s why oncologists pay close attention to their food, physical activity, stress-management and more. Healthy habits can improve your overall health in the short and long-term, they say.

“We are seeing cancers being diagnosed at younger ages in general, and I think this is a reflection on how much our lifestyles are changing,” Dr. Eduardo Vilar-Sanchez, a medical oncologist in the department of clinical cancer prevention at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, tells TODAY.com.

Eating habits and physical activity have changed drastically over the last 30 to 40 years, he says. “It’s crucial for us to realize that cancers rely on our behaviors and our lifestyles,” Vilar-Sanchez says. “It’s important that we are conscious of that and we intervene to modify our cancer risk.”

Of course, your genetic risks and environmental exposures also play major roles in determining your risks for cancer, he says. But we shouldn’t ignore our lifestyle habits — especially because these are are factors we tend to have more control over.

When talking to patients about lifestyle changes, Dr. Julia Brockway-Marchello, a breast oncologist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, tells TODAY.com that “it’s about promoting a healthy lifestyle and healthy habits that can help patients in reducing recurrence risk, but also physically and mentally.”

That includes diet and exercise considerations as well as easy daily habits to adopt and avoid. And oncologists do many of these in their own lives, too.

Follow a healthy diet — most of the time

All of the experts emphasized the importance of a nutritious diet to maintain a healthy weight.

“If there’s any one thing we could do to address cancer prevention, definitely maintaining a healthy weight would be the biggest one,” Dr. Suneel Kamath, medical oncologist at the Cleveland Clinic, tells TODAY.com. “Excess body weight is a big cause of many different cancers,” he explains.

So what does healthy eating look like? For most of the experts TODAY.com spoke to, it’s something along the lines of the Mediterranean diet, which emphasizes fresh produce, whole grains, lean protein, olive oil, legumes, nuts and seeds.

Vilar-Sanchez, who is originally from Spain, grew up eating a Mediterranean-style diet rich in fresh vegetables and other whole foods. Today, he still follows a similar eating plan and has started to lower his meat consumption even more, particularly red meat. Instead, he opts for plant-based protein sources like beans and legumes.

Similarly, Kamath is “a big advocate” for the Mediterranean diet, he says. “Recently, I’ve been adding a lot of fish into my diet while cutting back on red meat and processed foods,” he explains.

“My mom is a dietitian,” he adds, “so, fortunately, I really love vegetables.” In particular, he eats a lot of dark leafy greens (like kale and spinach) as well as broccoli, bell peppers and carrots.

While Brockway-Marchello also tends to stick to a diet that’s heavy on fruits and veggies, healthy fats and high-quality protein, she balances that with the challenges of being a mom to two young kids. “Pasta and pizza are very much a part of our weekly menus,” she shares.

The experts all recommend avoiding processed meats when possible as well as excess sugary foods. That said, the experts don’t necessarily cut out your favorite treats completely. A hot dog at a Fourth of July barbecue is fine, but “if you’re eating hot dogs or fast food every day, that’s not something that will be contributing to your overall health,” she says.

“Everything in moderation,” Kamath says. “I think you can have have the sweet treats, but have it sparingly.”

Brockway-Marchello also indulges in occasional treats, like birthday cake or cupcakes, but sticks with homemade versions. Store-bought or pre-packaged treats are often made with processed ingredients of questionable quality and “aren’t made with love,” she says. “If it’s not homemade, it’s not worth it.”

Drink alcohol in moderation

Reducing or limiting your alcohol intake is associated with a reduced risk for cancer occurrence and recurrence, Brockway-Marchello says, particular breast and liver cancers.

“I break a lot of hearts saying this, but unfortunately, there really is no safe amount of alcohol,” Kamath says, adding that he’s cut back on drinking in his own life.

For Vilar-Sanchez, drinking can be part of an occasional social event. But he sticks to red wine, which is allowed as part of the Mediterranean diet.

Stay physically active throughout the day

All of the experts TODAY.com spoke to engage in physical activity regularly, including designated workouts as well as playing sports and walking throughout the day.

Staying physically active can help with weight management, but also has many other benefits, especially for cardiovascular health, Vilar-Sanchez says. He runs at least three times a week on a treadmill, often while listening to a podcast. And he plays tennis with his kids and his friends, which also allows him to spend time outdoors and be social.

Also a runner, Brockway-Marchello started running back in high school and got back into it after having her first child. “I signed up for a half-marathon, which led to the next one,” she says. “I enjoy running for mental health and physical health,” she explains, adding that running can be a meditative activity for her.

She’s also a Peloton fan and regularly runs and cycles with the brand’s workouts. There are also physician and patient Peloton communities, which can add a helpful social aspect, she says.

Kamath prefers to use his rowing machine to get a good workout, but he also makes a point to walk to his destination whenever possible and take the stairs rather than an elevator. “It’s easy to find little ways where you can add physical activity into your daily life that goes beyond setting aside time to exercise,” he says.

Wear sunscreen

It may seem obvious, but sun protection is one of the easiest things you can do to dramatically reduce your risk for skin cancer, the experts say.

“It is super important to use sunscreen and be very mindful of (the SPF) of the sunscreen that you are using,” Vilar-Sanchez says. He recommends using at least SPF 50 and to consistently reapply it while you’re outside.

But your sun protection shouldn’t end there. “Sunscreen is great, but actually having your skin covered is that much better,” Kamath says. He and Brockway-Marchello recommend wearing UPF clothing in addition to sunscreen if you’re spending time in the sun.  

Develop stress-reducing hobbies

Finding some way to effectively manage stress is a challenge, the experts agree, but it’s also helpful for your overall health.

“My life is not particularly Zen,” laughs Vilar-Sanchez. “But we acknowledge that stress can have an impact on our immune system, and that plays into our (cancer) risks,” he says. 

To create a little more calm in his life, Vilar-Sanchez tries to carve out time for what he calls his “mind space.” He explains: “I do that by pausing throughout the day to have breaks of 15 to 20 minutes where I can disconnect from my email inbox, texts and my WhatsApp messages.” He often uses that time to listen to a podcast about something that interests him, such as history or tennis.

Both he and a Brockway-Marchello also cite exercise as a way to reduce stress in their life. When running, “listen to the music and just go,” Brockway-Marchello says, “and that’s a way to clear your mind.”

Vilar-Sanchez sees tennis as part of his stress relief because it’s also a social activity. While spending time on your own can be helpful, “sometimes we just need that opportunity to vent and get input from others,” he says.

For Kamath, a guitar player, “stress relief is about having an outlet,” he explains. When playing, “I wouldn’t say I’m actively thinking about what was stressful about my day or trying to mentally process anything,” he says, “but having that (outlet) where you can express yourself and do something you really enjoy, I think it just helps you reset.”

Don’t smoke

“If there’s any single health choice one can make, it’s to not smoke at all, or if you did smoke, to quit,” Kamath says. “I don’t think there’s anything healthier, in terms of a behavior choice that you can make.”

Smoking is linked to multiple types of cancer as well as cardiovascular disease risks, Vilar-Sanchez notes. And there are evidence-based techniques and tools you can use to quit.  

“We have resources to help patients to stop smoking,” Brockway-Marchello agrees, but she also acknowledges “the fact that it is an addiction and (quitting) is very hard to do.”

Don’t rely on supplements

As tempting as it is to pin your hopes on a single supplement to prevent or cure cancer, the experts caution against them.

“This is a big area for profit-driven misinformation,” Kamath says. “I’m just cautioning people to look for real evidence,” he explains, like actual studies with human beings showing reduced cancer risk.

On the contrary, supplements often come with “some sort of vague claim to being anti-inflammatory or antioxidant,” he says. “But not everything that is those things will actually help prevent cancer cells from forming.”

Supplements are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration in the same way that prescription drugs are. And while some ingredients in them can be safe, Brockway-Marchello says, others may contain ingredients with unknown effects, that can interfere with medication or that can actually be harmful for people with certain types of cancer.

Before spending money on a supplement, she recommends people at least consult Memorial Sloan Kettering’s “About Herbs” tool for information on possible drug interactions.

Be open about family health history

One of the most important — yet overlooked — things you can do for your health is to have “an open conversation about health in the family so we can identify familial risk factors,” Vilar-Sanchez says.

General screening guidelines, including screening for breast and colorectal cancers, are created for people with average risks. But many people may have a family history of cancer, meaning they should be starting screening earlier in life, and simply don’t know it, Kamath explains.

Cancer and serious health topics can be stigmatized and tough to talk about, Vilar-Sanchez says, but it’s important to know who in your family has had cancer, what type of cancer and any other potential sources of risk in the family.

“If we all really knew what our family history is, I think we would catch a lot of people developing cancers before they happen or catch them at earlier stages,” Kamath says, “and that would make a huge difference.” 


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