The Deaths of Kara Kennedy and Eleanor Mondale – And What You Should Know About Cancer

By on September 19, 2011

By Tamekia Reece –

This weekend brought tragedy for two political families. After a successful battle against lung cancer in 2003, Kara Kennedy, daughter of the late senator Edward “Ted” Kennedy, died of a heart attack on Friday, September 16. On Saturday, September 17, Eleanor Mondale Poling, daughter of former Vice President Walter Mondale, passed away from brain cancer. Both women were 51.

Although Kennedy’s cause of death wasn’t cancer, her brother, Patrick Kennedy, has reportedly said her cancer treatment left her physically weakened, and her heart gave out.

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Unfortunately, many people will have their own experiences with cancer’s toll on the body. The American Cancer Society  estimates nearly 1.6 million people will receive a cancer diagnosis this year. Cancer is the second leading cause of death in the United States.

Still, some people remain unsure about what causes cancer, how to prevent it and what to do if diagnosed with the dreaded “C” word. We spoke with experts to help clear up the confusion.

Eleanor Mondale

Eleanor Mondale-Photo by Jessie Hegland

What causes cancer?

There is no easy answer to this question. “Cancer is usually caused by some combination of an environmental exposure–something that one was exposed to (likely decades before)–and the genetics of the person,” says Maurie Markman, M.D., Senior Vice President of Clinical Affairs and National Director of Medical Oncology for Cancer Treatment Centers of America. “It’s a very complicated interplay that occurs over a period of many years,” he says, noting that cancer generally takes a decade or more to develop.

How to prevent cancer?

Although there are some risk factors you can’t control—like a genetic disposition and age—cancer prevention is not all out of your hands. These lifestyle changes can help reduce your risk of developing cancer.

>>Drop a few. Pounds, that is. “Having a healthy weight and low waist circumference can significantly reduce a person’s cancer risk,” says Joan Bull, M.D., an oncologist at Memorial Hermann – Texas Medical Center, in Houston, TX. Research shows that cancers of the colon, endometrium (lining of the uterus), kidney, esophagus and breast (in post-menopausal women) are associated with obesity. “A ten pound gain in an average-size woman or man can increase the risk of cancer by up to 15%,” Dr. Bull says. To keep off (or shed) the pounds, you must eat a well-balanced, low-calorie diet that consists of lean proteins, fruits and vegetables and healthy fats, says Clare McKindley, RD, LD, a clinical dietitian at the Cancer Prevention Center at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center.

>>Clean your plate. Even if you’re already at a healthy weight, that doesn’t mean your eating habits don’t need an overhaul. What you eat can increase or decrease your cancer risk. For instance, studies have shown that a high consumption of red meats (beef, pork and lamb) and processed meats (hot dogs, sausage, bacon, deli meats) is linked to an increase risk of colon cancer. The American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) recommends less than 18 ounces of red meat per week and eliminating all processed meats.

For more help warding off cancer, fill your diet with the following AICR-recommended foods: whole grains, lean proteins, dark green leafy vegetables, garlic, beans, berries, soy, cruciferous vegetables (like broccoli and cauliflower), flaxseed, tomatoes, garlic, green tea and grape juice or grapes. “Because of their antioxidant components and how they positively influence the body’s cells, these foods are good cancer-fighters,” McKindley says.

>>Work up a sweat. Getting in some physical activity can help reduce your risk of cancer in a number of ways. “Exercise can help control your appetite, it can offset the calories you consume, and it helps maintain muscle mass, which makes your metabolism more functional – all things that can keep you at a lower risk for developing some cancers by helping you reach or maintain a healthy weight,” McKindley says.

The American Cancer Society recommends adults get at least 30 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity on five or more days per week. Getting even more – 45 to 60 minutes – will further reduce the risk of breast and colon cancers.

>>Nip it in the bud. You likely already know that smoking tobacco causes cancer. In fact, smoking is the leading cause of cancer. However, lung cancer isn’t the only worry. Smoking is also associated with cancers of the esophagus, larynx, mouth, throat, kidney, bladder, pancreas, stomach and cervix.

So stubbing out the bud for good can be beneficial not only for your lungs but for overall health. There is a variety of options available to help you kick the habit, including nicotine replacement patches, lozenges, gums, inhalers and sprays, and Chantix and Zyban, prescription medications. There are also smoking cessation programs around the Houston area. Although quitting can be difficult, it’s worth it. “Every year of not smoking means a reduction in your cancer risk,” Dr. Bull says.

>>Go light on drinks. Did you know alcohol consumption is associated with cancer? It’s not fully understood how alcohol causes cancer, however, numerous studies have shown a link. According to the American Cancer Society, alcohol use is linked to mouth, throat, larynx, esophagus, liver, breast (in women), and colon and rectum cancers. The more a person drinks, the higher the risk.

That doesn’t mean you have to give up alcohol completely. The key is to drink moderately. “The guidelines are one alcoholic beverage a day for females and two for males,” McKindley says. One serving, she adds, is either 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine or 1 ½ ounces of hard alcohol.

>>Make a date with your doc’. Keeping up with your doctor’s visits and being screened for certain cancers is very important for catching the disease in its earliest stage (when they are most treatable) , Dr. Markman says. Cancer screening recommendations for women include Pap Smears for cervical cancer, mammograms for breast cancer, and colonoscopies for colon cancer. Outside of that, you should make it a priority to see your doctor for a routine annual exam. And, if needed, put in a call between visits. “Obviously no one knows your body better than you, so if something changes in your body–there’s a pain that doesn’t go away or something feels different–that’s when you should go to the doctor for a checkup,” Dr. Markman says.

How is cancer treated?

If you do receive a cancer diagnosis, there are treatment options. They may include:

• Surgery to remove the cancer and surrounding tissues.
• Radiation to destroy or damage cancerous cells.
• Chemotherapy, used once cancer has spread to multiple areas of the body, consists of strong drugs used to cure the cancer, slow its growth or to keep the cancer from continuing to spread.
• Biological therapy (using the body’s own immune system) to slow down or stop cancer cell growth.
• A combination of any of the above.

The thing to remember is a cancer diagnosis is not a death sentence. “With early detection and treatment, many cancers can be cured,” Dr. Markman says.

Tamekia Reece is a freelance health writer in Houston. Her health stories have appeared in Woman’s Day, Oxygen, Parents and Preserving Your Memory, among others. Her website is

About Tamekia Reece

Tamekia Reece is a health writer living in Houston, TX. She’s written for Woman’s Day, Parents and Oxygen, among others. See her website at

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The Deaths of Kara Kennedy and Eleanor Mondale – And What You Should Know About Cancer