MANKATO — The harsh reality of cancer is that it can strike anyone at anytime.

It can be caused by anything from genetics, your environment or just plain old bad luck.

Absent a long awaited cure, all someone really has control over is the life they lead.

And certain life choices — eating healthfully, exercising and cutting down on smoking — do seem to be associated with reduced cancer risk.

Any of the above choices fall under the umbrella of primary cancer prevention — defined as anything you do to reduce the risk of ever getting an illness in the first place.

Getting a flu vaccine is a perfect example of primary prevention. You get the shot, you decrease your chances of getting the flu.

Cancer is quite a bit more complicated. We know that smoking is strongly linked to lung cancer, but not all cancers have such a strong link.

Still, people can limit risk factors for many cancers by being active and eating healthfully, said Dr. Stephan Thome, oncologist at Mayo Clinic Health System in Mankato.

“The message should be, before you ever get cancer these are things that are risk factors, and if you modify them you may improve your chances,” he said.

The message he doesn’t want to put forth is that people need to make the changes or they’ll regret it later. It's no one's own fault for getting cancer, he said, and confrontation isn’t the right way to go about inspiring change.

“I don't want people going into this guilt mode," he said. "It's more like here's some things that are associated with it that you can try to avoid or modify."

Thome said he'll often encourage his patients to change eating and exercise habits. He even got a coworker to take up running as a primary prevention method.

“I've had quite a few patients who come in and are very proud to say 'Look at me, I'm better now,'” he said.

Some have trouble making the connection between eating healthfully and long-term health. Thome said part of the problem stems from ads.

“I'm not sure the average person knows they should eat healthy," he said. "A lot of the (unhealthy) choices are blasted out on TV.”

A second shot

The same measures people can take for primary prevention can work for those who've had cancer and want to limit the chances of recurrence. This would be categorized as secondary prevention.

An organization very much dealing in secondary prevention is LiveStrong at the Mankato Family YMCA. Barb Mullally, program coordinator, said LiveStrong’s 12-week programs aim to improve the quality of life for people who have or had cancer. Through cardio and strength training, participants regain what they lost during cancer treatment. It can also limit the chances of recurrence.

“We’re teaching how to live a healthier life and maybe how to eat better and trying to avoid certain aspects of the environment that can lead us down the path to cancer,” Mullally said.

Jacalyn Sticha, LiveStrong instructor, said she’s been involved with the nonprofit since her own cancer diagnoses. She’s a two-time breast cancer survivor — melanoma and lung cancer -- and said exercise should play an important role in post-cancer recovery.

“We do know that fitness, whether it’s pre or post cancer, should be an integral part of any clinic’s oncology department,” she said.

Over the years, Mayo’s oncology department has recommended patients to LiveStrong. Karen Winters of North Mankato had her “intake” appointment with Mullally Tuesday after her Mayo oncologist referred her to the Y program.

A breast cancer survivor, Winters climbed onto the chest and leg press machines while Mullally looked on, charting her baseline strength measures.

“I want to be a lot stronger and healthier, and get the health tips along the way,” Winters said of her hopes for the 12-week classes.

By providing structured classes and workouts, Mullally said it helps people come at exercise the right way. She said people may be generally aware that exercise is healthy, but it doesn't help if you have no idea how to get started exercising.

“The awareness is out there, but I don’t think enough people embark on an exercise program the way they should,” she said.

Beyond building strength, LiveStrong also gives cancer survivors a chance to meet others in their small groups who've been through the rigors of chemotherapy and radiation.

Thome said staying mentally active -- interacting with other people -- is another important consideration in recovering from illnesses such as cancer.

“Anything that gives you a sense of purpose also promotes longevity,” he said.

For information on the next LiveStrong courses for newcomers or program alumni starting in September 12, call the YMCA at 507-387-8255. Cost for alumni group sessions is $3 per week. Cost for newcomers and immediate family members is free.

Follow Brian Arola @BrianArolaMFP.

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