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Mayo Clinic Cancer Specialist's Personal Secrets for Staying Healthy

Mayo Clinic Cancer Specialist's Personal Secrets for Staying Healthy

Edward T. Creagan, MD

In my 30-year career as a cancer specialist, I have cared for approximately 55,000 patients. More than half of these people could have avoided a trip to my examining room. That's because their cancers (or, in some cases, heart disease and diabetes) developed as the result of unhealthy lifestyles, rather than a genetic roll of the dice.

Because I see the devastating effects of such lifestyles each day, I have made it a point to develop personal habits that give me the best possible odds for staying healthy. My secrets...

Prevention and Early Detection

An annual physical is important for everyone over age 50. If you are younger than 50 and are generally healthy, ask your doctor how often you should be examined. I'm 59 and I see my internist every spring for regular screenings. These exams are absolutely essential.

My advice: In addition to annual physicals and any other screening tests your doctor may recommend for you, be sure to schedule colonoscopies (one every five years after age 50). Women should have mammograms (annually after age 40) and Pap tests every one to three years if they're sexually active. Men should have prostate-specific antigen (PSA) blood tests and digital rectal exams annually starting at age 50. If a first-degree relative (parent or sibling) had cancer, begin monitoring with these tests 10 years before the age that family member developed the cancer.

Healthful Eating

My wife, Peggy, and I are vegetarians, so we don't eat animal-based saturated fats, which boost the risk for cardiovascular disease. We get our protein from beans and fish. Black bean soup and Minnesota rainbow trout are two of our favorite dishes.

I never eat fried or calorie-dense foods, such as butter. We use olive oil, even on toast. The only thing I ever order at a fast-food restaurant is low-fat ice cream.

I carry my own lunch when I work at the hospital. It typically includes a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on high-fiber, whole-wheat bread (at least 2 grams per slice), pretzels, carrots and low-fat yogurt. I drink six to eight six-ounce glasses of water a day.

My advice: Plan at least one meatless dinner a week, such as spaghetti with marinara sauce... black beans and brown rice with salad... or tofu with stir-fried vegetables.


Nutritional supplements are not the same as the good stuff nature puts in leaves or berries. However, it can be difficult to get all your vitamins through food. I take a multivitamin that contains 18 mg of iron, because, as a vegetarian, I don't eat iron-rich meats. I also supplement daily with 400 international units (IU) of vitamin E and 500 mg of vitamin C. These vitamins are good antioxidants. They also enhance muscle recovery after exercise.

I have a family history of heart disease, so I add an 81-mg baby aspirin each day to decrease my risk for heart attack and stroke.

My advice: If you take supplements, understand what you are taking and why. Most people take whatever is advertised. Consult your physician, pharmacist or a registered dietician for guidance. A health-food store employee rarely has the proper training.

Physical Activity

I run eight to 12 miles, five days a week. If I can't run, I swim and use aerobic machines, such as the treadmill and stair climber.

On alternate days, I also lift weights (one set of 12 repetitions per major muscle group). I opt for free weights over weight machines because they work both the core muscles, such as the abdominals, and the supporting muscles, such as the paraspinals (muscles next to the spine), which help my posture.

My advice: Get at least 30 minutes of physical activity every day. It can be performed in intervals of 10 minutes at a time. For example, walk hard enough to make your heart beat faster. Also, lift weights every other day or at least twice a week.

Stress Management

Every year, I take a personal, silent three-day retreat in a monastery, which helps me focus and put my life into perspective. A few times a year, I also go to a cabin on a lake in northern Wisconsin, and leave my laptop at home.

Each day, I make a to-do list of what's important. This way, I don't let other people's agendas drive mine. I also take a 15- to 20-minute walk around the block daily at noon to clear my head and renew my energy for the afternoon.

My advice: Leave the laptop and cell phone at home when you take a vacation. Take a daily "retreat" by practicing meditation or deep breathing, or going for a walk. Watching a funny movie is good too.

Social Connectedness

Connections with family, friends and even pets give us reasons for getting up in the morning.

To stay connected to my three sons who are scattered across the country, I write them each a letter, in longhand, every Monday, no matter where I am or how hectic my schedule might be. The act itself is my "therapy," and I don't expect a response. I also attend church to promote my spiritual connectedness.

My advice: Form stable long-term relationships. This is your buffer against stress and a great way to boost your immune system. Spend time in nature, a house of worship or with a spiritual community to foster a faith in some type of "higher power." If your work does not provide you with a sense of meaning and purpose in life, find a hobby or outside interest that does. This will give you a reason to push on even in the face of illness or adversity.

This article was provided by Bottom Line's Daily Health News. Bottom Line's vast network of leading mainstream, alternative, and complementary practitioners brings you the information you need to make informed decisions about your health. 

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