By Caitlin Pomerantz

While I am relieved that the oil spill has been plugged and that recovery is underway, I remain haunted by the environmental disaster. As photos of oil coated birds and turtles blanketed the news, and I heard friends from Louisiana and Florida sharing their frustration over the devastation to the ecosystem that sustains their culture and way of life, I was struck by a feeling of utter powerlessness. The thought of all that oil gushing into the sea, every minute of every hour of every day, for over eighty days, has been a reminder to me of the limits of my control. Wishing won’t erase the damage that’s been done, but hopefully we can learn from our experiences and put pressure on those in positions of responsibility to make sure they are following all the necessary procedures to prevent this from ever happening again.

To many people, the threat of cancer is just as overwhelming as the oil spill. We may feel like there’s no use in trying to eat healthy and exercise because the threat of cancer is in our genes or in our environment, and there’s nothing we can do about it. However, there is one area over which we do have control, which has been demonstrated by study after study to be an essential component of cancer prevention: what we eat.

The Harvard Report on Cancer Prevention estimates that diet contributes to one third of all cancer cases, six times more than carcinogens in the workplace or a family history of cancer.1 According to the American Cancer Society, eating a healthy diet with an emphasis on plant sources is the best way to give our body the support it needs to fight cancer.2

The good news is that your body is not just a passive entity; it actually has complex and sophisticated defense mechanisms that can stop cancer cells from replicating. You don’t all of a sudden ‘get cancer’ the way you get a cold or flu. Cancer cells may be present in your body for a long time before they reach a stage where they interfere with your health. So, instead of waiting for the shock of a cancer diagnosis to motivate us to change, we should be looking into what we can do to prevent cancer now. The biggest thing we can do to help prevent cancer is to strengthen the body’s immune system so that it’s able to defeat cancer cells before they become a threat.

Whole grains and fresh fruits and vegetables are sources of many substances that the body uses to fight cancer. Antioxidants are found in all brightly colored fruits and vegetables, and they help to sweep up free radicals that, left unchecked, may cause cellular mutations. Whole grains and beans are good sources of fiber. Fiber contributes to healthy intestinal flora, and absorbs bile salts that would otherwise react with undesirable bacteria to form cancerous substances in the intestines. Plants, especially cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, cabbage, kale and other leafy greens) contain phytochemicals that prevent carcinogens from affecting healthy cells. This is only a small sampling of the many beneficial properties of whole grains, fruits and vegetables.

In addition, eating a balanced, plant-based diet helps a person maintain a healthy weight, which contributes to cancer prevention. According to a report by the American Cancer Society, “Obesity and physical inactivity may account for 25 to 30% of several major cancers, including colon, post- menopausal breast, endometrial, kidney, and cancer of the esophagus.”

When I hear people say that they don’t have enough time to exercise, or they don’t have enough money to buy healthy food (even though eating healthy isn’t more expensive), I’m reminded again of the Gulf oil spill. This situation occurred because the executives of BP felt pressured to increase the speed of drilling. Judging from news reports, in their haste, they may have neglected safety procedures that could have prevented the explosion. Possibly they thought they didn’t have enough time or money to do things right. But, if they could have foreseen the billions of dollars in legal liabilities and all the additional time and costs associated with plugging the well and cleaning up, no doubt they would have made the right choices in the first place.

In the same way, we need to anticipate what it would feel like to be diagnosed with cancer. Faced with a health emergency, we will spend much more money and time to correct it than if we had taken steps towards better health from the beginning. With just a little effort and sacrifice for our health we greatly increase our chances of preventing a life threatening disease like cancer. If nothing else good comes from the catastrophe of the Gulf oil spill, I hope it will at least encourage all of us to re-evaluate our priorities and to consider the long-term effects of our actions on our health, the health of our loved ones and the environment. Pay now or pay later!

(See more of Caitlin's writings and commentaries by other thoughtful writers by visiting "Let's get down to earth" a blog by Mark Fergusson and friends: http://www.downtoearth.org/blog)