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Embracing a cancer smart lifestyle

January 15, 2015


Jo Pham

Embracing a cancer smart lifestyle

Wait. Stop. Before you eat that second chocolate biscuit this afternoon, put it down. That's right. Down. Now back away - slowly.

You've heard it all before and no doubt from Cancer Council: don't smoke, eat healthily, exercise, limit your drinking and be SunSmart. That's a healthy lifestyle right? Whether you get them from Cancer Council, your doctor, the annoying gym trainer, lifestyle magazines or The Biggest Loser, there are plenty of health messages out there, some of them confusing - but are the important messages getting through?   

Working at Cancer Council Australia, I'm surrounded by health messages every day. Until recently, I mostly ignored them. After all, I was young(ish), healthy and surely the advice didn't apply to me.

But over the last few months, one fact has kept ringing in my ears: one third of cancer cases in Australia are caused by preventable risk factors such as smoking, limited physical activity, poor diet, alcohol and sun exposure. And if I was being honest with myself, was I really doing all I could to reduce my risk?

I looked at my lifestyle and what I needed to do.

For me it meant saying no to the afternoon chocolate binge, the extra double shot of whiskey, putting off health check-ups and saying yes to waking up early and going to the gym. Sound easy? Well actually, it did to me.

I put the cancer-smart lifestyle tips into action.

First, out went the cherry slice in the afternoon and in came the carrot sticks and nuts.  Then I made sure I had some alcohol-free days and minimised my drinking at other times (that wasn't too hard, actually), started walking the long way home, booked in that slightly overdue check-up at the doctor's - none of these were difficult things to do.

It doesn't have to be a dramatic change straight away but understanding what your body really needs and taking those baby steps for a healthier end goal.

Frankly, once I started paying more attention to my health, I was surprised at how much I hadn't been taking care of myself. What? An apple a day won't keep the doctor away?

I admit there may well be a day when friends bar me from Friday night drinks for preaching about the evils of smoking and excessive drinking but to be frank I was rather amazed when my university graduate friend reacted in surprise, "Alcohol can cause cancer? Really? I thought it was just smoking." Sorry my friend, drinking alcohol increases your risk of cancer. I thought that was fairly obvious. In case that friend may stumble upon this, there will be no naming of names.

We may think we're invincible as 20- or 30-somethings, but it's what we do to ourselves now that matters in the long run.

I do admit, slathering my five-year old cousins with excessive sunscreen at a barbecue last weekend and dragging them back into the shade when they were out in the sun may have been a tad over dramatic. But I'm quite happy that they now know to limit their time going out in the sun and protect themselves when they do. They got the message, no matter how annoying I was. It also proves, boys and girls, that nagging can work.

Not all the tips in the Cancer Council factsheets will apply to everyone but at least 90% did to me (as a non-smoking office worker) and it will most likely be the same for you. I've never believed in that over-the-top "my body is my temple" hoo-ha but I must admit there is some truth in it - if you don't take care of yourself, who will? I've felt much better about myself and my health since making these changes. Maybe not at 6am when I'm stumbling, blurry-eyed, into the gym, but my energy levels are much higher and I no longer nod off onto the unsuspecting passenger beside me on the train.

So if you're reaching for that fourth bickie, is it really worth it? I'm not asking you to go cold turkey on everything (a complete alcohol ban would be quite challenging for me), take those baby steps and make a change. If you're not doing it for yourself, do it for your family and friends who probably do want you to stick around.

One third of cancer cases in Australia are caused by preventable risk factors such as smoking, limited physical activity, poor diet, sun exposure or not taking part in screening programs.

There are seven simple steps you can take to reduce your cancer risk. Read more here: