Imagine for a moment a vacant city lot that’s seen better days.

Once it sprouted tall, healthy grass and wildflowers; now it only sprouts weeds. Every so often the city blasts the lot with toxic weed killers, but every time, the tangle of weeds is back within a few months. The lot is choked with trash and broken bottles, and so unappealing that it lowers the property value of the buildings around it.

One day a woman of vision passes by. She notices how well-located the lot is, and how with care it could become the centerpiece of the neighborhood. She organizes a team, and together they clear the trash and root out the weeds. They bring in compost to aerate and upgrade the soil, and put in a drip irrigation system. They build planting beds and walking paths.

Over the next months, the lot becomes a welcoming and productive community garden. Trash no longer accumulates, and any that drifts in is quickly and easily removed. The enthusiastic gardeners are constantly on the lookout for weeds.

If the improvement team had stopped its work after pulling the weeds and removing the trash, the lot would have appeared healthier for a short time. But without the restoration of the terrain, new infrastructure and continued love and attention of the gardeners, it would have become re-infested with weeds and continued to be a candidate for toxic treatment.

This image of a weed- and trash-filled lot restored to vitality through attentive care and infrastructure improvements may help us think in a new way about healing from cancer.

The diagnosis of cancer is usually a sudden event, but tumor growth isn’t. By the time a tumor is detected, it’s been growing “under the radar” in conditions somehow hospitable to its growth for a long time, sometimes decades.

Treating a tumor by surgery, chemotherapy or radiation may remove the bulk of the cancer that’s there at the time, and may be necessary to save a life. But just like the vacant lot, until the terrain that produced the cancer is modified, there’s little to stop cancer from sprouting. And that’s the greatest fear of most survivors I speak to: that their cancer might come back.

Here’s what I’d love every cancer survivor to know: it’s within your power to significantly reduce your chances of cancer recurrence.  Make your internal terrain a healthy place for your cells to grow and function, healthy and resilient enough that there’s little chance for cancer cells to gain a foothold.

Most of us are born with a pretty pristine internal terrain, full of amazing mechanisms to fight off threats and keep us healthy. In fact, research has demonstrated that cancer cells can be implanted into the terrain of a fetus, and never develop into cancer.1 In its native state, our terrain is that good at defending itself.

But as we go through life, the events of our personal history, the environment we live in and the effects of our lifestyle all leave their marks on our terrain. If those events or habits are damaging, our body gradually loses its ability to defend our organ systems from harm. Our repair mechanisms become overwhelmed and become increasingly less efficient. If this process goes unchecked, the accumulated damage eventually results in disease.

There are so many balancing and repair systems within our bodies that it can take some time before this degeneration makes itself known in the form of chronic symptoms. By the time symptoms appear, there’s usually been an underlying problem for some time.

Symptoms are your body’s cry for help. It’s saying, “I can’t fix these problems on my own anymore.  I need your support.”

If all we do is stifle symptoms, we create relief, but not healing. To heal and prevent future disease, we need to address what caused the symptoms in the first place.

If a body displays a symptom as threatening to its own wellbeing as a cancerous tumor, then certainly it’s prudent to remove the threat to the person’s life. Standard cancer treatment removes the immediate threat, but does nothing to prevent future disease.

We miss a critical opportunity if after removing the immediate threat, we don’t restore and recondition the terrain that produced the tumor, to prevent it from harboring another one.Given that the chances of surviving a second or third bout with cancer are much lower than the chances of surviving the initial round, we’re remiss if we don’t provide survivors with all available tools to prevent a repeat round from occurring.

Research is accumulating at an astounding rate on the power of true nourishment, exercise, sound sleep, social support and stress management to effectively restore internal terrain and prevent all degenerative diseases, not just cancer. In the case of cancer, these tools are far less expensive, far more accessible and in some cases, far more successful than any manufactured therapy in preventing cancer recurrence.

To give just one example, large research studies have found that 30 minutes of moderate exercise 5 times per week reduces breast cancer recurrence by up to 50 percent, and the recurrence of lung cancer – the deadliest cancer in our society – by up to a third.2 There are no preventive drugs that approach this degree of success.

The wheels of cancer cure research turn ever so slowly, and despite all the research there’s actually been very little improvement in overall rates of survival in the last half-century. We need to continue to look for cures, but in the meantime we have an enormous opportunity to impact survival outcomes with what we know now. With loving guidance and currently available tools, we can empower survivors to root out the weeds, recondition their terrain, and vastly improve their chances for a radiantly healthy future.

Photo by Lucas Löf

1 See this amazing TED talk by Dr. Mina Bissell:

2 For example:Irwin ML et al, Physical activity and survival in postmenopausal women with breast cancer: results from the women’s health initiative, Cancer Prevention Research, 2011 Apr; 4(4): 522-9.