In the second installment of our Cancer Warriors series, we are focusing on the natural healing powers within our own bodies. Cancer is on the rise in part because of sedentary behavior and the intake of food-like substances instead of real food. The decline in general health is not a necessary human condition; you can change your life with every step you take and every breath you make.

One of my dear friends died in June from cancer. Antoinette Cardamone was a joyful spirit with a huge heart and a tough wit. Three days before she flew into heaven, she asked me to visit her. With a raspy voice, she said, “Doll, it’s a shock when you hear the news. But then you get to look at your life laid out before you. What are you going to see? I had a good life. Make sure you can say the same. Change, now.” She texted me the last two words a couple of hours after I left. “Change, now.” I am, Antoinette.

By Christine Tumpson / Illustration by Jordan Harriger

The latest push at the UPMC CancerCenter and UPCI is for more exercise in all patients, from the people who have just been diagnosed, to the ones who have progressed through treatment and are wanting to stay clean from cancer. Dr. Stanley Marks, chairman of UPMC CancerCenter, starts with three actions: an aspirin a day, same with Vitamin D3, and exercise to keep everything moving and flowing in the body. Sedentary behavior and the accumulation of fat is not only depressing, it is dangerous.

“Cancer is fascinating,” Dr. Marks explains. “There’s more and more evidence that if you exercise at least 30 minutes a day, five days a week, you can reduce your risk of cancer by as much as 40 percent. It’s also recently been noted that if you had cancer in the past — especially colon, breast, prostate, and ovarian — and you exercise, you can reduce your chance of having an occurrence by 30-40 percent.”

He continues, “exercise is one of the most important actions you can take to help guard against several types of cancer. Vigorous exercise lowers the risk of cancer by preventing obesity, reducing inflammation and hormone levels, and improving insulin resistance. Obesity increases the risk of almost 20 different types of cancer. Many breast and uterine cancers are fueled by estrogen. Since estrogen is produced in fat cells, obese and sedentary women are more prone to these hormone-dependent cancers.”

And Mother Nature, in her most perfect glory, made certain to reward you for taking care of yourself with a huge incentive: endogenous morphine, your own personal narcotic that is perfectly suited for you but will not kill you or lead to dependence. Endorphins are chemicals that stimulate euphoria, modulation of appetite to an appropriate body level, sex hormones, and for cancer purposes, an enhanced immune system.

The triggers are exercise, sex, chocolate, chili peppers, meditation, controlled breathing, yoga, Pilates, tai chi, massage therapy, and acupuncture. Once activated, endorphins are produced in the pituitary gland and transmitted through neurological pathways to the brain, where they attach to opiate receptors, which cause those great feelings and side effects.

Not secreting enough endorphins can lead to psychological disorders, too, like obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and depression. For patients in the throes of cancer recovery, fatigue is a common complaint. Again, it’s back to exercise, says Dr. Marks. “Patients do better when they get off the couch. They have less anxiety. That’s for that subset of patients, but it’s true for society in general.”

“The endogenous endorphins are the ones that give you the high. There are at least 20 different kinds of endorphins. There’s one that’s called beta endorphine, and it’s stronger than morphine. It’s felt to play a role in everything from diabetes to aging. While each endorphin has its own different purpose, the group as a whole makes you feel better, and activating them helps you to live a healthy life.” — Dr. Stanley Marks

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