Last week, I wrote of the sad and untimely death of the great nutritionist and educator Robert Crayhon who lost his battle with colon cancer at the age of 49.
Last year, around this same time, we lost another of our greats, the nutritionist and author Shari Lieberman, who died at 51 of breast cancer.
Both of these wonderful people were in amazing health. Both of them knew all the right things to do. Both ate in the most healthy way you can imagine, both were avid exercisers, in great shape, and did all the right things when it comes to supplements, stress-reduction and detoxification.
Yet both died of cancer.
In both cases, I received a ton of letters which all asked a variation of the same question: “How can this happen?”
In the long run, do all those healthy habits we all try so hard to cultivate amount to nothing? Does nutrition really make a difference or have we been fooling ourselves? What’s the justification for doing all these healthy things? If avoiding processed carbs, taking the right supplements, nixing trans-fats, getting enough fiber in our diet, exercising on a regular basis—even being a good person—can’t offer any protection against disease, what’s the point?
I understand the question and the frustration behind it. And while I don’t have the definitive answer, I do have some thoughts about the subject.
First and foremost: Stuff happens. Sometimes really bad stuff. And sometimes it really is out of our control.
You can adhere to every rule of safe driving, wearing your seat belt, putting your cell phone in the trunk, never touching alcohol when you’re going to be behind the wheel, obeying the speed limit—and yet some drunken teenager who’s texting can still jump the divider without warning and take you out. Or a boulder can fall on your car from the overhead pass.
It’s tragic- but it doesn’t make taking those precautions is stupid or unnecessary.
See, every one of those driving “rules” does, in fact, reduce the risk of you being an automobile casualty. Every time you ignore one of those “rules”—i.e. you text when drive, you have a couple of drinks, you forget to put on your seatbelt—you actually increase the risk, statistically, that you will be hurt.
That doesn’t mean that every drunk, stupid, unbelted driver gets killed— clearly some don’t. But like the old saying goes, “You can run with a lighted match through a dynamite factory and live to tell the tale. But you’re still an idiot.”
Eating a ton of fruits and vegetables, exercising regularly, taking the right supplements, eating enough fiber, avoiding trans-fats and processed carbs, meditating every day and getting good quality sleep all reduce the risk for many diseases, just as wearing your seatbelt and not drinking while driving reduces the risk for getting killed in a crash.
But reducing the risk isn’t the same as eliminating it.
Cancer is a multifactorial disease, involving diet, genetics, environment, and probably a dozen other variables we don’t yet fully understand. And sometimes it happens, unfortunately, even to people who do “everything” right. It’s tragic—but it would be even more tragic if we concluded from that fact that doing the “right” things don’t matter.
Both Shari and Robert—(and I knew them both)—would be utterly mortified if people concluded from their respective deaths that all the lessons they taught about healthy living were meaningless.
We can reduce risk- and we should- but we can’t, sadly, eliminate it. Smokers get lung cancer at a much higher rate than non-smokers, but sometimes even non-smokers get lung cancer. Does that mean it doesn’t “matter” if you quit smoking? Of course it does. You immediately shift the odds in your favor, maybe from a 1 in 7 risk to a 1 in 70. Sadly, however, you can’t reduce that risk to absolute zero.
As Shakespeare said, “There are more things in heaven and earth than you can dream of in your philosophy”. We don’t know everything there is to know about cancer- nor about many other diseases. We know things that make the likelihoodof your getting these diseases higher, but we don’t know how to completely eliminate the possibility of ever getting them.
Which brings us back to the beginning: Sometimes… stuff happens. It just does.
As Robert said so brilliantly: “The two biggest dangers in nutrition are thinking that it does nothing and thinking that it does everything.”