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Let Food be Thy Medicine: Cancer Prevention

Benefits of eating health to prevent cancer in the future

Child patient
Child patient

About 2400 years ago, Hippocrates allegedly coined the famous phrase “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.” Regardless of the true author, this ancient ‘prescription’ seems to fit our technology-obsessed microwave era better today than when this axiom was first spoken.

Case in point: According to the WHO/International Agency for Research on Cancer, 18.1 million cancer cases are diagnosed worldwide each year. That number is expected to reach as high as 23.6 million by 2030, according to the National Cancer Institute.

The CDC tells us cancer is now the second leading cause of death behind cardiovascular diseases (except for American Indians, Alaska Natives and Asians, and Pacific Islanders, for whom cancer is the leading cause of death). People worldwide are diagnosed with cancer, a disease commonly believed to be preventable. Lately, nutrition and the role it plays in preventing cancer, has been a hot topic; especially since more research is being published about the this than ever before. There is research to support that some of food we consume may have a tremendous impact on our lives as well as possibly in the development and/or prevention of cancer. 

Although genetic defects and cellular disturbances are responsible for a percentage of cancer diagnoses, the remaining causes can be attributable to our surrounding environment and lifestyle choices. There is evidence to support that some lifestyle choices include smoking, diet, alcohol, sun exposure, environmental pollutants, infections, stress, obesity, and physical inactivity can play a large role.

Even after the diagnosis of cancer other lifestyle factors have been proven to play a large role in survivorship.  Data suggests that even after diagnosis, continued tobacco smoking, poor diet and nutrition, and infections play a large role in mortality.  Other factors that contribute are radiation, stress, physical inactivity, and environmental pollutants.  

Based on this research, it is safe to conclude that cancer prevention requires smoking cessation, increased ingestion of nutrients such as fruits and vegetables, use of whole grains, minimal meat consumption, decrease alcohol intake, caloric restriction, regular exercise, avoidance of direct exposure to sunlight, and routine check-ups at the doctor’s office.

Several experimental studies have shown that fruits and vegetables help our body neutralize a dangerous group of particular substances called free radicals, which can damage cells and its internal DNA. These molecules, generated by certain oxidative processes in the body or by contact with toxic substances, once produced, can circulate throughout the body and have a negative impact. These free radicals have the ability to “prick” cell membranes or the inner parts of the cells like a thorn, including the cell’s DNA. When these free radicals contact the cell membrane, their negatively-charged “thorns” damage the membrane. If a cell ””pricked” too often, without any sort of repair work, it will eventually quit functioning properly. When the DNA, inside the chromosomes of the cell, is altered by these oxidative mechanisms, the cell can no longer repair itself. That often times leads the cell to multiply in an uncontrolled manner, resulting in a malignant cancer.

Prestigious sources of medical information, such as The National Institute of Health; The National Cancer Institute; The National Heart and Lung Institute; The American Heart Association; and The American Cancer Society recommend increasing the intake of fruits and vegetables in our daily diets. Eight to ten servings of fresh fruits and vegetables, along with a certain amount of whole grains, is what we should be consuming every day; however, most Americans do not even consume three servings daily.

By consuming more fruits, vegetables, and grains, we can help do our part to protect ourselves and neutralize the free radicals with antioxidants and natural substances. Additionally, increased consumption may in some cases help to reverse the existing damage, caused by the free radicals. Thus, there is no reason we all should not live longer lives and maintain our energy, sex drive, and other faculties throughout our entire life span. The only catch is that we must be vigilant and eliminate dangers to our body. We can start today by increasing our intake of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. As this will be our path towards helping to prevent cancer in the first place.  Although no one is denying that cancer treatment is important, focusing on your part by making lifestyle changes to help prevent cancer is a big first step. 

Dr. Joshua Mansour MD, board certified hematologist and oncologist who has studied integrative medicine explains that “nutrition can play a very important role in cancer prevention with studies showing that it has a significant impact on breast, colon, oral cavity, lung, prostate cancer to name a few”.  He describes that you diet can play a role in decreasing your risk by eating foods such as vegetables that are loaded with antioxidants and fiber which to help stave off cancerous cells from developing.  While it may not be known exactly which factors have the greatest effect, evidence is even supported by the American Cancer Society and National Cancer Institute.  

Dr. Mansour goes on to explain that “not only does nutrition play a large role but so does our lifestyle choices.  For example, according to the National Cancer Institute and the Mayo Clinic, you can help lower your risk of breast cancer by maintaining a healthy weight by helping decrease certain hormone levels that may play a part.  An increase in hormones such insulin and related hormones in obesity can encourage colorectal cancer.  It has been shown that even by decreasing your weight by 10% can you reduce your risk of cancer.”  

Several other foods and nutrients that may not be on people’s radar, according to Dr. Mansour, is soy that can serve multiple purposes and is an excellent source of calcium, iron, protein, vitamin B, and fiber. It also contains a class of isoflavones which may decrease the risk of breast and prostate cancer. 

When asked about what he hears most about nutrition and cancer, Dr. Mansour states “Sugar always seems to be a hot topic. There is a misconception that sugar ‘feeds the cancer’.  While excess sugar is not healthy for you the premise behind it involves an increase in insulin as well as an increase in weight gain which may both contribute to cancer.”  

Vitamin D deficiency has now been linked to an increase in cancer as well.  Foods such as fish as well as sunlight in moderation can boost vitamin D levels.  Remember though excess sunlight can lead to skin cancers such as melanoma and basal cell carcinoma. 

Just as important as foods that are helpful are knowing the foods that you should avoid.  Processed meats and foods have a high level of nitrates that has been linked to gastric and colorectal cancer among others.  Many foods have added preservatives to prolong shelf life and add appeal.  Dr. Mansour states that “just because something looks good, doesn’t mean that it is good for you.  These additives can pose significant risks to your body.” Some of the growth hormones used in animal farming is another example, while excess alcohol and red meat have been linked to cancer as well.

Dr. Mansour wants to make it noted that “all of this is a way for each person to do their part in helping their body and reducing the risk of cancer.  Unfortunately, there are other factors that play a role that we do not have control over or have not yet identified”.  He then asks, “If you could do something to help reduce your risk of cancer, wouldn’t you?”

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