Cancer Prevention Starts at Home

The causes of cancer are complex. Research now highlights the role environmental toxins play in this growing epidemic and points to changes you can make to reduce your risk.
04/08/2016 03:53 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The causes of cancer are complex. Research now highlights the role environmental toxins play in this growing epidemic and points to changes you can make to reduce your risk.

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We are exposed to chemicals every day, in the air we breathe, the food we eat, and the products we put on our body.

In 2010, the President's Cancer Panel released a landmark report that said, "The true burden of environmentally induced cancers has been grossly underestimated."

The report has brought much-needed attention to a growing body of evidence that reveals exposure to chemicals, even at low levels, is contributing to the nation's cancer burden.

"The chemical burden we all carry from our increasingly polluted world continues to grow heavier," says the Silent Spring Institute. "Not even the newest members of society are safe: One study found the umbilical cord blood of 10 newborns to contain an average of 200 contaminants -- including a range of pesticides, flame retardants, and other pollutants."

With more than 1.6 million new cases of cancer expected to be diagnosed in 2016 alone, experts report about 90 to 95 percent of cancers come from environmental and lifestyle factors.

The good news is, with a little awareness and effort, these factors can be changed. Current wisdom suggests the best ways to minimize your chances of getting cancer are to reduce stress, increase physical activity, eat a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, and minimize your exposure to environmental toxins.

You Are What You Eat

Buying organically grown food isn't just a trendy, expensive fad. It's a way to reduce your exposure to pesticides and herbicides and to help reduce the general amount of these chemicals we're adding to the environment.

Organic food has about 30 percent less pesticide residue than conventional food, reports Harvard Medical School. While the levels of pesticide residue on conventionally grown food fall within acceptable limits, Dr. Michelle Hauser, clinical fellow in medicine at Harvard Medical School, says, "Just because these foods aren't going over what they call an 'acceptable limit' doesn't mean they're safe for everyone."

If you're interested in being cautious and buying organic when you can, the Environmental Working Group's Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen are a great place to start.

While the jury is still out on a direct link between eating organic food and cancer prevention, it is clear that eating a plant-based diet with a variety of vegetables, fruit, grains, and beans lowers the risk of many cancers.

Cancer counselor Kelly Turner, author of Radical Remission, discovered that a healthy diet is one of nine factors in common among people who have healed from terminal cancer. These long-term survivors changed their diets by increasing their consumption of vegetables, fruits, and organic foods.

Clean & Safe

Your skin is your largest organ and the front line for exposure to many common chemicals. Consider your morning hygiene routine alone -- how many soaps, sprays, creams, and cosmetics do you use? The average person uses nine personal care products daily, which contain an average of 126 ingredients.

"Once I started cleaning up my diet, I started thinking about all the chemicals I came in contact with every day and, specifically, the chemicals that had been linked to cancer," said Christine Egan, author of The Healthy Girl's Guide to Breast Cancer. "Looking at ingredient lists and researching products can be overwhelming, so I started small and found a few obvious products to start."

You can start, too, by getting to know what's in the products you use and what risks are associated with them, then finding some easy substitutes.

For example, phthalates are used in many personal care products and exposure to them is linked with an increased risk of breast cancer. They are not always listed on labels, so the Environmental Working Group recommends choosing personal care and cleaning products without "fragrance" on the ingredient list. You can add lavender or lemon essential oil to bring a natural scent to your products without the risk of chemical exposure. Similarly, you can replace face and body creams with long lists of ingredients to a one-ingredient solution like coconut oil or almond oil.

What to do when you're in the store and can't remember the details? There's an app for that. Detox Me, created by the Silent Spring Institute, helps consumers identify potentially harmful chemicals found in household items and personal care products.

Start at Home

Omega's chief executive officer, Robert "Skip" Backus, has lived with cancer since 2005. Backus grew up in New Jersey and rarely got sick -- no colds, no flus. But he lived in the industrial corridor of North East New Jersey. Located in that corridor was the Esso Refinery, now the Bayway Refinery owned by Phillips 66, which converts crude oil into gasoline, diesel, and heating oil.

In 2003, the refinery came under scrutiny for high cancer rates among its workers. It has been ranked among the worst polluters in the country and has received almost 200 citations for violating state environmental laws since 2005.

Backus can't say for sure his cancer was caused by where he grew up, but he thinks it was a major contributor. Today, he is focused on living well with his condition.

"Once you have cancer, the struggle is to figure out how to live with it," Backus said. "Finding a personal practice that can teach and remind you that you are not just this body or this cancer, that you are beyond both, is important. You need to know that you, yourself, are a well of strength."

Cancer caused by environmental factors is as much a social justice issue as it is a health issue. Activists like Erin Brockovich work to bring justice to those affected by environmental contamination, but much remains to be done on a societal level to mitigate the effects of toxins in the environment.

Consider Ben Franklin's advice that "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure." To start at home, review this Dirty Dozen list of the worst toxins in the environment and how to avoid them.

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