If your body were a neighborhood, healthy habits would be kind of like the Neighborhood Watch committee. The wrong element might move in, but these habits would make it hard for it to thrive—and that’s why eating right, working out and maintaining a healthy weight are so important for prohibiting the growth (or re-growth) of cancer cells, scientists say.
Researchers have long-suspected that diet and exercise play an important role in warding off cancer, but they weren’t sure exactly why or how. The latest research, however, suggests that while healthy habits can’t actually change the inner workings of a tumor cell, they’re vital for creating a ‘microenvironment’ in your body where cancer cells will be unable to multiply and spread. If you don’t want your body to become the kind of place where breast or other cancer cells put down roots, you need make sure you maintain certain conditions in its microenvironment.
Almost everyone will get cancerous cells at some point. With 10 trillion cells in the human body, “we are all developing microscopic cancer cells continuously,” William Li, president of the Angiogenesis Foundation, which funds disease research, told USA Today. Most of these cancer cells never wind up causing trouble—and some will wind up causing trouble no matter what you do. But there are certain conditions within the body, like inflammation, high levels of insulin or high levels of estrogen, that increase the chance that these cancer cells will survive, spread and reach dangerous proportions. Exercise helps prevent chronic inflammation and lower levels of insulin and estrogen; smoking, heaving drinking, being obese and eating processed foods all increase inflammation.
“The microenvironment, in some cases, may make the difference between a tiny little cancer that doesn’t hurt you, and one that becomes a major danger to your life,” says Lynn Matrisian, a cancer biologist at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville.
Rocker Melissa Etheridge recently made headlines by blaming her 2004 breast cancer development on her highly-processed diet and “toxic Western lifestyle.” Sounds like Etheridge is right—to an extent. Doctors stress that there are a variety of factors leading to cancer development—genetics, the external environment—that are beyond our control, plus some complete unknowns. Breast cancer is highly genetic. I think everyone would hate to see all these findings about lifestyle and cancer get distorted into a situation where people blame cancer patients for bringing it upon themselves, or think that individuals are totally able to diet and exercise cancer away.
But it’s also important that we acknowledge the role these lifestyle factors play. There are people (like, ahem, me) who have a hard time convincing themselves to exercise as a mechanism for keeping slim (my diet and metabolism take care of that, thanks). But the more research I see tying exercise to mental health, cancer prevention, etc., the more likely I am to get my butt to a gym or on a bike. There’s something a little bit empowering or reassuring about thinking of cancer as not-always-as-totally-random as it may have once seemed.