Five years ago today I read this article (“The Insider’s Guide to Cancer Prevention) in the Guardian’s Saturday edition. I am glad to see that it’s still available online. It’s worth a few minutes of your time. Reading it prompted me to make one small daily change in my life.
I am now nearly the same age my mother was when she was diagnosed with bowel cancer, just a few months younger than she was when she had a major operation to remove a tumour. The operation was followed by four weeks in intensive care and several months of chemotherapy. She lived for nearly six more years after that, and died 20 years ago. (The 20th anniversary of her death is next Monday, 10 April.)
I do not dwell too much on the details of her illness. I took the view then that if you get ill you have to get through it and move on, not wallow in it, not look back on it in any detail after your recovery. Not all of her friends saw things the same way. Some of them seemed almost nostalgic about those months in Charing Cross Hospital, recalling the nurses, the mishaps, the other women on the ward. Do you remember that time when? Who was that woman who? Oh, and do you remember Elsie? No. Move on. That was then, this is now. If your friends want to dwell on your past misfortunes you have to wonder: what kind of friends are they? Do they want you to be healthy and happy? Do they want you to move on?
I am fortunate enough to have spent no time, not a single minute of my life, in a hospital bed. I was born at home and apart from a few trips to Accident and Emergency (where I sat on a chair and didn’t need a bed) my only hospital appointments have been for a few minor things like hearing tests and the removal of a wart (on my hand). I appreciate my good fortune. I value my health. I have spent hundreds of hours, maybe thousands of hours, visiting other people in hospital and am glad that nobody has had cause to visit me in such circumstances.
I believe that if you have been dealt the kind of good fortune that most of us in the west enjoy you don’t need to take too many drastic steps to live a long life. Most of us who are able-bodied and have never been affected by famine or life-threatening infections, who have shelter, free health care and access to clean drinking water, can live long and healthy lives as long as we avoid the most obvious dangers to our health. There is a very small chance that we might be unlucky, that leukaemia or a brain tumour might take us while our children are still young, and no amount of exercise and sensible eating could have prevented it. But for the vast majority of us, with our advantages, at this stage of human civilization, we can hope for many decades more on earth.
Even so, I am always on the look-out for small changes that increase your chances of an even longer, healthier life. I wrote this piece about oily fish last year, asking how many small changes you would make to increase those chances. The change that I made five years ago, which I referred to in the opening paragraph of this piece, was to start taking a daily aspirin. I am copying the neurologist Peter Rothwell, who is quoted in the article:
“I … pop my daily low-dose aspirin … It has been a routine since my research into the effects of aspirin on cancer prevention really started getting interesting, around three years ago …
We had already shown, in 2007, that taking a high-dose aspirin on a daily basis for about five years reduced the long-term risk of contracting colon cancer by about 50%, but around 2009 we began to show that a low-dose pill had the same effect, as well as significantly reducing the chance of other cancers, including oesophageal.”
That’s good enough for me. There are risks for some people who take aspirin regularly (internal bleeding, for instance). This article, also from five years ago, notes that “10 to 15% of people who start taking daily aspirin stop because of heartburn and other complaints”. I’ll bear that in mind and, all being well, will be able to report my progress in another five years.