Man beats cancer – or man gives himself cancer?

Man beats cancer – or man gives himself cancer?

This is the kind of ‘beating cancer’ story that I find really disturbing.

In the Guardian article, the photograph is captioned ‘Jonathan Acott: ‘I wanted to prove that I would not be beaten by my cancer.’ So, at first sight it’s about a remarkable man who has used increasingly extreme forms of exercise to beat cancer three times. He says that: ‘Working with researchers at the University of Surrey and being exposed to the wealth of evidence out there, it is clear to me that the old adage “rest is best” no longer applies.’ So it implies that research supports his approach to cancer and, that by default, that anyone with cancer who isn’t ‘running marathons and climbing Mount Kilimanjaro’ isn’t putting up enough of a fight. If they die, well, that’s what you get if you don’t put enough effort into ‘conquering’ it.

Yes, there’s plenty of evidence that moderate, regular exercise can help prevent cancer and improve outcomes but there’s none that says ‘the more extreme the better’. In fact, there is evidence that too much extreme exercise actually depresses the immune system. So this could actually be read as a cautionary tale – that his obsession with extreme exercise made Jonathan Acott more vulnerable to getting cancer again and again.

Acott is clearly remarkable in terms of his athletic ability but I believe that holding someone like him up as an example of someone who has ‘beaten cancer’ is extremely unhelpful. Even if it could be proven that he had saved himself, few people in the world have the physical ability, motivation or money to follow his path.

I believe that, for the vast majority of people with or without cancer, motivation for change is not about setting the bar so high that you’re almost bound to fail but so low that it’s almost impossible to fail. So, if you’re new to exercise, instead of setting out to train for a marathon you might start out with just a few minutes of stretches or lifting weights or walking every day.

You might not think that would be enough to make a difference and it’s true that, if that’s all you ever did, the difference wouldn’t be huge. But it’s much easier to stay motivated to do something that’s only going to take a few minutes. And, if you do any activity consistently, you will gain a sense of achievement. You’ll start thinking of yourself as someone who does regular exercise. And I believe that, when you start to notice little improvements in how much you can lift, how far you can reach or how fast you can walk without getting out of breath, you’ll be inspired to do a little more, then a little more until, suddenly, you realise you’re doing as much as it takes to make the really important long-term changes that really can make a real difference to your overall health.