During first year of medical school, I walked in to my nutrition tutorial eating chocolate buttons and I was told off by the person undertaking the session. I proceeded to place the chocolate in my bag, listen to how we need to eat our “five a day” and minimise sugar intake and then left the class to finish off my chocolate. During the first three years of medical school, we are taught about a long list of conditions that result from an unhealthy lifestyle. This comes in contrast with the very little teaching we get on lifestyle modification. So, if my teaching on this topic is limited, how am I expected to embrace this lifestyle myself and subsequently deliver it effectively to my patients?
For my intercalated year, I did a BMSc on Genetics, Cancer and Personalised medicine. After learning about causes, some genetic predispositions of cancer and how medicine has advanced to treat this, it was apparent that something was missing. Prevention. My thesis focused on how lifestyle factors may modify the risk of breast cancer in genetically predisposed women. Through this, I first came in contact with the SCPN.
After getting involved with the SCPN, I developed an interest in healthy lifestyle promotion and cancer prevention. Thus, I volunteered as a lifestyle coach in the ActWell study, as well as became a Youth ambassador for both Scotland and Cyprus for the European Cancer Leagues (ECL). For the latter, I attended a summer school in Paris, where 30 young people across 27 EU countries came together from different backgrounds but with one common goal: to prevent cancer. The aim of the summer school was to equip us to be able to make changes to reduce cancer risk in the countries we were representing. Talks included the principles of persuasion, how to address vaccine hesitancy, as well as the use of IT for patient empowerment.
Volunteering as a lifestyle coach has also provided me with invaluable skills. It taught me how lifestyle modifications need to happen gradually to be implemented and last in the long term. Moreover, I learned the importance of tailoring this change to the individual and that even small changes make huge difference to their lives and must be praised.
My involvement in SCPN and being a cancer ambassador, helped me to make personal changes as well. I always make a shopping list before going for food shopping and try stick to it. Then, I prepare meals for the week, especially lunch to take with me. This saves me a lot of time cooking through the week and prevents me for buying the usual “chips and beans”. I always make sure I add some fruit as well in my bag as a snack to boost my energy levels. As a rule, I have at least two meat-free days a week and choose white over red meat. Since I don’t always have my phone on me, I wear my pedometer to keep in track of my steps. I try to take regular breaks for a short walk while studying, to decrease my sedentary time and clear my mind. I’m still a chocolate lover, but moderation is key!
Throughout the past year, I learned that healthy lifestyle is important in all ages. I am very keen in spreading awareness of the 12 codes against cancer and promote lifestyle change. This is not only essential for patients, but for us, the future doctors. Students must be equipped with sufficient knowledge to be able to deliver lifestyle advice to patients to help them reduce the risk of prevent further progression of their condition. Most importantly though, we should adhere to this as well; we cannot expect people to follow our advice if we don’t follow it ourselves.
Kyriaki Christou – SCPN students
4th year medical student, University of Dundee