Cancer is a frightening word. According to the National Institute of Health, cancer deaths worldwide are predicted to go from 8 million in 2012 to 13 million in 2030, an increase of 60 percent. Cancer itself is not one disease, but many with a multitude of causes. The good news is we can be proactive in our strategic approach to preventing cancer by reducing our risk factors. A plant-based, anti-inflammatory diet that combines the best of the Mediterranean and Asian diets is our best insurance policy. A diet rich in colorful, locally grown, organic produce, legumes, nuts, seeds, fruit and pastured animal products that are grown or raised in healthy soils—which are rich in trace minerals and beneficial microorganisms—is the key to eating well. Fermented foods, including sauerkraut, kimchee and yogurt, provide beneficial microbes to the gut; they play a role in the transformation of toxins, support the immune system and increase our overall nutrition.

Avoidance of toxins, including those found in commercially raised animal-based foods and consumer products, will reduce the body burden of carcinogenic chemicals we are exposed to daily. By choosing only green cleaning and body care products free of harmful xenobiotics (man-made chemicals which disrupt the endocrine system), we can reduce the overall toxic load on our bodies. Herbs that support the innate detoxification systems of our elimination organs, such as the kidneys, liver, skin and bowels, are key. Fortunately, there are also many healing herbs which can be added to the diet as a supportive part of a cancer-free lifestyle: turmeric root; milk thistle; culinary herbs like oregano, thyme and rosemary; medicinal mushrooms (shitake, reishi, chaga, turkey tails, maitake); and dark red and blue-purple berries (blueberries, amla berry, autumn olive) take center stage as antioxidant-rich, anti-inflammatory superfoods.

In addition to a healthful diet and avoidance of toxins, a stress-free lifestyle that emphasizes time outdoors in nature with others, exercise, fresh air and sunshine is warranted. Gardening is one activity that satisfies these health requirements. Studies also show that cultures that place a high value on community and having a higher sense of purpose in life are healthier, live longer and suffer from less disease overall, including cancer.

The stressors of our modern world are unavoidable; we can lessen the effects by using adaptogen (“stress-busting”) herbs, mindful eating, and practicing daily gratitude and meditation. We can choose to live a cancer-preventive lifestyle and greatly reduce our risk of ever needing the “big guns” of technology-based medicine and pharmaceuticals simply by turning to nature as our teacher.

Alison Birks, MS, AHG, CNS, is an instructor at The Institute of Sustainable Nutrition, which is located at Holcomb Farm, 113 Simsbury Rd., West Granby. For more information on training programs beginning in September or for reservations for an open house on September 5, call 860-764-9070, email or visit