It was a little over two years ago that I was diagnosed with leukemia. I still struggle with the side effects of the treatment and have a long way to go to full recovery.
People were generally shocked when I told them I had leukemia. “But you’re so healthy!” was a common response. I was an avid runner and hiker. I lifted weights and practiced yoga and tai chi. I am also a registered dietitian/nutritionist with a PhD in behavioral medicine. Health and wellness are what I practice and help other people to achieve. So how could I, this supposed paragon of fitness and health, get leukemia? Did I just not try hard enough? Was my penchant for chocolate and cheese my ultimate undoing? In all honesty, I wasn’t entirely surprised that I got leukemia. Not that I was expecting it, but instead of “why me?” my feeling was
The "healthy" me right before diagnosis. “well, why not me?”.
I knew that there weren’t many controllable risk factors for my acute lymphoblastic leukemia. Even so, when I was diagnosed, I wanted to know why. What are the risk factors for leukemia, and which one had done me in? I looked at the data and came up mostly empty handed. I hadn’t been exposed to an atomic bomb explosion or worked near a leaky nuclear facility. I had never been exposed to high levels of cancer-causing chemicals like benzene and I was never a smoker. I looked for evidence of nutrition and exercise related risks, but the evidence showed no connection. My biggest risk factor was being over the age of 50.
It’s a myth that anyone can completely prevent diseases like diabetes, heart disease and cancer through heroic healthy habits. But some media stories and "experts" often make you believe that if you just try hard enough (and take the supplement they're selling) you won't get sick. While there are many lifestyle factors that can lower your risk and even treat diseases like heart disease and type 2 diabetes, cancer is a bit different. It’s called “The Emperor of Maladies” for a reason. To be blunt, cancer’s a bitch who couldn’t care less that you can hold a plank for over a minute and drink a green smoothie every day. Cancer is a crapshoot.
Okay, maybe not a total crapshoot. We know smoking is a major cause of lung cancer. But some people who never smoked, sometimes get it. Their risk is just much lower. There’s moderately strong evidence that drinking alcohol is linked to an increased risk of breast cancer and that eating a lot processed meat is linked to an increased risk of colon cancer. We also know that exercise and not being overweight are linked to a lower risk of some cancers, so there are some things you can do. But these are moderate correlations – not surefire protectors. Please note I’m not giving you a complete list here of all the lifestyle links to various cancers. But the point is, these things lower our risk. They’re not a guarantee.
We also need to understand that cancer is not one disease. Each type of cancer is its own evil entity. Each has its own causes, risk factors, chances of survival, and treatments. Yet, we talk about “a cure for cancer”. I hope researchers find the one, but it most likely will be “cures for cancers”. There are already cures for some cancers depending on the stage of discovery and your response to treatment. And going into cancer treatment with a strong, healthy body likely ups your chances of survival and quality of life. Healthy habits are never a waste of your time.
The day I was diagnosed, I was working on developing an exercise intervention with a physical therapy colleague at UAB. We were taking pictures of me doing exercises for the patients in the study to follow online. It was fun and fulfilling work and I looked forward to the prospect of helping patients. After we finished our work, I had an MRI over at the Kirklin Clinic because of a nagging ache in my leg. It was cancer. I was now the patient.
Beth Kitchin PhD RDN