By Dena Nishek
Winning or losing the war against cancer depends more on what we eat than on drug development. We could hold out hope for a breakthrough medication or treatment option, but with the lifetime odds of developing some form of cancer at one in two for men and one in three for women, we should empower ourselves and take preventive measures now.
Some 200 types of cancer can develop anywhere in the body. It all begins when normal cell duplication goes awry. DNA transcription errors result in defective cells. Cells with mutated genes can lie dormant for years until sufficiently encouraged by carcinogens. In most cases these mutated cells are naturally destroyed, but those that elude destruction pass on their errors as they divide. The wayward cells can multiply uncontrollably and form a tissue mass called a growth or a tumor. Benign tumors aren't cancer, don't spread, and rarely pose any danger. Malignant tumors, however, are cancerous. They can damage neighboring tissue, interfere with organ function and spread to other body parts in a process called metastasis.
Your risk of developing cancer is a complex mix of heredity, lifestyle and environment. "Cancers are about 30 to 40 percent genetic, so 60 to 70 percent of all cancers depend on how we live, how we feel, and the world we live in," says James Gordon, M.D., founder and director of the Center for Mind-Body Medicine in Washington, D.C., and author of Comprehensive Cancer Care (Perseus Books, 2000).
You can't control a genetic inheritance, but sharing your family's cancer history with your doctor improves your odds. Screening tests can help detect cancerous cells before symptoms appear, which greatly increases survival rates. Aside from being aware of inherited risks, there are proactive measures you can take to cut cancer risk. For example, you can avoid cigarette smoke, maintain a healthy weight, exercise and limit sun and chemical exposure. But first and foremost, you can revise your diet.
Just how important is the food you eat? The American Cancer Society says about one-third of the 500,000 annual U.S. cancer deaths are related to diet; cigarette smoking causes another third. For those who don't smoke, diet and exercise are the most important modifiable determinants of cancer risk.
"Even though there is some dispute about it, diets rich in animal fat—particularly diets featuring a lot of fat and flesh from animals fed hormones—are clearly involved in the incidence of cancer," Gordon says.
Martin Katahn, Ph.D., author of The Cancer Prevention Good Health Diet (W.W. Norton and Co., 1996), agrees: "The diet should be plant based. Cut out red meat entirely and cut way back on other animal foods, but include moderate amounts of fish." He says you can improve your odds against cancer by "eating a variety of different colored plant foods, especially Allium and cruciferous foods" (see "Cancer Prevention Guide").
This is sound advice. The American Cancer Society and the American Institute for Cancer Research are two of many national organizations promoting plant-based diets for cancer prevention. Fruits and vegetables provide important vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals that interfere with cancer development by neutralizing carcinogens or suppressing malignant cellular changes.
Another important piece of the prevention puzzle is weight control. "If we dealt with obesity, we'd probably lower the rates of cancer significantly," Gordon says. "So much of the population is obese, and we know obesity is a major risk factor for cancer."
Researchers have found that obesity increases the risk of several cancers including colon, breast and prostate. Obviously, diet plays a role in weight maintenance, but exercise is equally important.
Exercise may help in the fight against cancer by altering hormone levels conducive to cancer development and by stimulating digestion, which reduces colon and rectum cancer risk by minimizing the length of time the bowel lining is exposed to potentially toxic substances.
One such group of carcinogenic chemicals that can be present in both the food supply and the environment (air, soil, water) are xenoestrogens. Examples include organochloride pesticides such as DDT and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). Xenoestrogens, which are not readily biodegradable and concentrate in human and animal tissues, are said to have hormonal properties once inside the body. These hormonelike substances can trigger cell growth and division. Although there is no conclusive evidence on their specific role in estrogen-related cancers, the EPA considers them probable cancer-causing chemicals. You can reduce your food-borne exposure by avoiding fish caught in PCB-contaminated waters and by eating certified organic foods.
Gordon says that eluding this disease is all about how well our bodies can cope with, monitor and prevent cancer. To begin taking charge of your diet, environment and lifestyle, which will give you a significant edge against cancer, Gordon recommends a mind-body approach.
"The first principle of mind-body medicine is awareness," he says. "If you see yourself doing something destructive to yourself or your environment, pay attention—own up to it."
This awareness, seeded by deep-breathing exercises and meditation, will spread throughout your lifestyle, he says. "The more self-aware you become, the better choices you'll make about food and the way you exercise, and the more aware you'll become of what's going on in the environment."
A healthy diet with plenty of fresh foods, coupled with an active and contemplative lifestyle, is the best preventive medicine. It isn't as simple as a pill, but this prescription has no unwanted side effects.
Dena Nishek is a freelance writer and editor based in Boulder, Colo.