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Take a Hike | Commentary by Dianne Erskine-Hellrigel
| Sunday, Apr 27, 2014

DianneErskineHellrigelFor those of you know have met me in this stage of my life, you might be curious as to why “The Condor Lady” or “The Cougar Whisperer” would be writing about something as serious and deadly as Cancer.

What most of you may not know is that I spent countless years in school, and working in a hospital with a pathologist in a lab sectioning specimens and examining them when they came out of surgery. Many times this was done while the patient was still under the effects of anesthesia. Our results determined if more tissue was to be extracted or if the surgeon could close and send the patient to recovery. In those ancient times, all chemistries were done by hand, not machine. The lab techs and pathologists were the first to know the diagnosis. It was a job that weighed heavy on my mind.

Cancer is not a battle that any of us choose. But, there are steps we can take to help lower risk. I’ve seen a lot of lymphomas, melanomas and breast cancer. Some have had great survival rates, and others are now in the arms of angels. More than a million people in the United States are afflicted with cancer each year. That is an astounding number. I would bet that everyone reading this is personally affected or knows someone who is.

When I was in school, I thought that cancer would be cured by now and we’d be off working on solving another disease yet to be discovered. But cancer is really many diseases with many causes including genetics, tobacco, diet and lack of physical activity, Sun and UV exposure, Radiation exposure, environmental pollutants, and even certain infections! It is impossible to avoid all of these risk factors, but you can improve your chances if you are aware of all of these risk factors, and take some precautions.

Heredity — While most cancers are not linked to genetics, some cancers do seem to run in families. In these cases, the cancer might be caused by an abnormal gene that is being passed down from generation to generation. Only about 5 percent of cancers are caused by these mutations. The genes that cause cancer are called “Oncogenes”.

But there are also genes that are tumor suppressor genes that repair DNA mistakes, slow down cell division or actually tell cells when to die. If these tumor suppression genes do not work properly, cancer can develop. If you believe you have a familial history of cancer, you can ask your doctor about genetic testing. Recently, Angelina Jolie made headlines because she chose preventive mastectomy because she had a high risk of developing breast cancer which ran in her family.

Tobacco — In the 1950s, tobacco smoking was touted as a healthful activity and everyone started smoking cigarettes and actors and actresses sported them in films making this activity even more sexy and desirable. Today, however, cigarette packages carry warnings of cancer risk, and we are seeing a downturn in smoking related deaths as the baby boomers smoke less. Cigarettes, cigars, pipes, chewing tobacco, and secondhand smoke can all cause cancer. Tobacco is an addictive substance, and once you start smoking/chewing, it will be very difficult to stop. Teens still think it is “cool” to smoke, or that it makes them look like an adult. But, this activity can lead to early death, and we need even more educational outreach on this level.

If you know someone who smokes/chews, try to help them to quit. The good news is that after about 15 years, the lungs are able to recover, as long as there is no cancer or emphasema present. And, second hand smoke can be even more damaging to spouses and children that don’t smoke. So, before you light up again, think about what you’re doing to the people around you, as well as yourself. This is a habit you can break, and lower your risk of cancer, and those you love.

Diet and Lack of Physical Activity — Your life style choices can affect your risk of cancer. It is that simple. If you eat fast foods, greasy foods, sugary foods, refined foods, burned foods you’re upping your risk. If you’re obese or just overweight, your risk goes up. If you’re a couch potato or even just a weekend warrior, your risk goes up. If you overuse alcohol, you can increase your cancer risk.

So, how can you change all this? I know it’s hard, especially if you grew up eating hot dogs, burgers, fried chicken and biscuits. But, everything you do for your body, no matter what your age or physical condition can help you out. Figure out what your healthy weight is. If you don’t know, ask your doctor at your next physical appointment, or, you can find a BMI index on line to figure it out. Try to attain that weight and stay there.

Don’t diet, CHANGE your diet. For breakfast think fruits and WHOLE grains. For lunch stay away from meats that have preservatives in them. Eat salads with roasted meats and vegetables. Keep potatoes as a treat. Eliminate the fries and the shakes and the processed burger buns. Eliminate the heavy sauces. If you make healthy choices with plant based foods, you won’t need to diet. For dinner, you might have a chicken breast, two vegetables, and brown rice or other whole grain food like lentils, oats, rye, buckwheat or quinoa.

For snacks, reach for cut up vegetables that are ready to eat. Forget the high fat dressings you use as dipping sauces. Controlling your weight is important not only for cancer but for other diseases such as diabetes. Did you know that being overweight causes the body to increase its production of hormones such as insulin and estrogen, and that these hormones can cause cancer?

Be more active. I do not advocating running 20 miles on your first day off the couch. You should have a physical exam and make sure you can begin an exercise regimen. Simple things, like walking around the block is a great way to begin. When you’re comfortable with that, you can walk 2 blocks. Then, when you’ve got the green light from your doctor, you can climb Kilimanjaro or Everest. Just don’t start there.

Alcohol is another problem. It is recommended that if you drink, you should limit your intake to no more than 2 drinks per day. This does not mean that you can drink two 17-ounce glasses of your drink of choice. A drink is defined as 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1 ½ ounces of any hard liquor. And, if you only drink on the weekend, you must still stick to the 2 drinks per day rule. You cannot make up for drinking days lost without raising your cancer risk, not to mention other related health problems. It is estimated that nearly 1/3 of the cancers in the U.S. are related to diet and activity levels. So, this is another choice you can make to actually lower your cancer rate. Don’t be a victim. Fight back.

Sun and UV Exposure — In the 1950s, we used to slather baby oil all over our bodies and bake in the sun for hours on end. The next week we’d resemble our reptile friends as our burned skin would flake off in large chunks. The next weekend, we’d be at it again, trying to get that California beach look that the entire country was admiring us for. Since those days of ignorant bliss, we’ve learned that Ultraviolet light (both natural and man-made sources such as tanning beds) can up the risk of skin cancer.

Skin cancer is one of the most common of all cancers with a whopping 3.5 million cases per year. Most of these cases will be basal or squamous cell cancers, but we expect 76,000 cases of the most serious skin cancer this year, Melanoma. Most of the basal and squamous cell skin cancers, if caught early, can be treated and cured.


Normal moles

Melanoma is also curable if it is found and treated early. However, it is more aggressive than basal or squamous cells and is responsible for most of the skin cancer deaths.

There are several other types of skin cancers, but since they are rare, I won’t go into them here. Risk factors for most skin cancers are exposure to sunlight or tanning booths. Your risk is greater if you have pale skin.

Another risk factor is exposure in the workplace to coal tar, pitch, creosote, arsenic compounds and radium. If you have multiple moles, or unusually shaped moles, have your physician watch them closely for changes.

If your mole changes in size, color, shape or becomes raised, check with your dermatologist.

If your mole changes in size, color, shape or becomes raised, check with your dermatologist.

It is a good idea to see a dermatologist often, especially if you have a lot of moles, or if you’ve had a lot of sunburns in the past. Be responsible. Get checked. Lower your risk.

Radiation Exposure — Many countries, including the U.S. previously tested nuclear weapons. Many people were exposed to radiation as part of this program and developed cancer. Other sources of radiation, such as the nuclear plant in Japan that was recently damaged in the earthquake and resulting tsunami are other sources of radiation exposure. Chernobyl and Three Mile Island are other notable sources. These are the major sources of high radiation.

However, radiation is always present in our daily lifes. We get some from our solar system, from the soil, from medical x-rays, food irradiation, airport security, and more. Our bodies can tolerate some radiation, but it is best to avoid large doses when we can. This is a difficult source to avoid. But you can limit your medical x-rays in some instances. Don’t see multiple doctors with the same complaint. If you do, take your previous x-rays with you, if possible to avoid a second x-ray of the same area. Environmental and disaster radiation are impossible to control. My only suggestion is to not live near nuclear plants, and to avoid contaminated food sources from high radiation areas.

Other Carcinogens — At home and in the workplace, you may be exposed to certain carcinogens and not even realize it. Things like exposure to radon can cause lung cancer. There are trace amounts of radon in air, water, in rocks and soil. The largest radon exposure is probably from certain granite countertops. If you’re installing a granite countertop, you might want to have it tested. Asbestos is found in all of those “cottage cheese” type acoustic ceilings, in some of the older sheetrock walls, in insulation, in car brakes and in many workplaces.

Know your risk and take precautions. Due to lots of TV ads, you have probably heard about Mesothelioma, which is one of the cancers caused by Asbestos. Inhaling the fibers from the rock is how you become exposed. Wear a mask. Workplace exposure is common, but household exposure in older homes is also worrisome. Other possible carcinogens can occur from the use of hair dye, smart meters, cell phone towers, Wi-fi devices, cell phones, certain drugs such as estrogen and gasoline fumes. There are hundreds of other controversial compounds that are suspected of causing cancer, but none of these have yet to be conclusively proven to be carcinogens. My best advice is to keep everything as natural as you can. Avoid heavy metals and known carcinogens.

Take care of your life, and those you love like you really care. Think about your actions and change your lifestyle.

I am very pleased that cancer research is continuing to make large strides ahead, and someday it is my hope that we can conquer these miserable diseases. There is currently research that is being done on a cancer vaccine. This is very promising research with very few side effects noted in trials. I have great hope that the human mind will be able to conquer this huge threat, and end the fear, pain, and loss that this disease inflicts.



Dianne Erskine-Hellrigel is executive director of the Community Hiking Club and president of the Santa Clara River Watershed Conservancy. If you’d like to be part of the solution, join the Community Hiking Club’s Stewardship Committee. Contact Dianne through communityhikingclub.org or at zuliebear@aol.com.

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