A word that impacts nearly every single person on this planet. Whether diagnosed with the disease or living with someone has been, cancer is a reality for far too many in our modern world; especially when we learn what cancer really is, how it develops and how nutrition and lifestyle determine whether or not we will suffer the consequences of this very modern disease.
Let's dip our toes into the fountain of knowledge a bit and explore what is known about this disease and the role of nutrition in its development. This is just a snippet of the information available about nutrition's powerful role in fighting cancer, please take a deep dive and keep learning!
This article is meant for informational purposes only and not intended to provide any medical advice. Please speak with your own personal and trusted health adviser before making any health decisions.
We have enormous control in preventing and treating this disease – through our nutrition and lifestyle choices. There are most certainly ways to minimize your risk for cancer development through dietary changes, however first we need to understand what cancer actually is and how it forms in the body. Once we have a better understanding of the disease, we can explore how to prevent and treat its growth in our bodies.
Cancer is an abnormal growth process of the cell. In a cancerous cell, the nucleus has been infected causing it to lose control of the cell’s growth, essentially never shutting it off. As the cell continues growing, beyond what is optimally healthy for it, it becomes what we understand as cancerous. Most of us, and at all times, have these ‘precancerous’ cells in our bodies. However, a healthy immune system is able to find these precancerous cells and remove them from the body before they can begin their lethal growth mutation.
So get training - start eating for optimal immune function - and win that fight! How does a healthy immune system fight cancer? It goes a little something like this:
Carcinogen enters the body and tries to find a cell in which to make a new home
It becomes oxidized and manages to invade the nucleus of a cell
The invasion produces oncoproteins in the cell
Body identifies this cell as ‘abnormal’ and calls out for help
Immune system hears the call, finds the offender and removes it from the body
Cancer avoided! Phew, that was close!!
But what if the immune system is not healthy? What if it cannot find the invaders and they are allowed to take over more cells, make more homes and eventually take over?? What if the immune system cannot even hear the call for help? Well, that story develops quite differently. And at the end of the story, there is no relief.
Cancer and Nutrition.
Can our knowledge of nutrition help us in preventing and treating cancers? If we explore what we know, and more importantly what we do not know, through scientific study and experimentation, then our knowledge can serve to guide us towards a cancer free reality. Let’s take a look at what some of these studies and experiments have taught us over the years. The examples listed here are by no means comprehensive. They are a sampling of what is out there to be learned and known – serving to whet the appetite of knowledge but not to satiate it. Always continue to hunger for more when it comes to learning.
In his book Super Immunity, Dr. Joel Fuhrman states that “In various studies, phytochemicals have been found to play protective roles not covered by vitamins and minerals, including the following:
· Inducing detoxification enzymes
· Controlling the production of free radicals
· Deactivating and detoxifying cancer-causing agents
· Protecting cell structures from damage by toxins
· Fueling mechanisms to repair damaged DNA sequences
· Impeding the replication of cells with DNA damage
· Inducing beneficial antifungal, antibacterial, and antiviral effects
· Inhibiting the function of damaged or genetically altered DNA
· Improving immune cells’ cytotoxic (destructive) power – that is, the power to kill microbes and cancer cells
This list could be condensed into one primary role: phytochemicals are the fuel that runs our body’s anticancer defenses. A diet rich in phytochemicals is the best artillery we have to fight the war on cancer.” - Super Immunity by Dr. Joel Fuhrman
In Dr. T. Colin Campbell’s China Project (results published in his book The China Study), his team analyzed data collected in the Cancer Atlas – a survey study which had been commissioned in the early 1970’s by premier Zhou Enlai. This survey provided Dr. Campbell and his team data on approximately 800 million people and revealed that cancer rates across China were geographically localized. As the participants in this study were largely part of the same ethnic group, this diversity in cancer clusters suggested to Dr. Campbell that dietary and environmental factors, not genes, could account for the rate and proliferation of cancer. He and his team began looking for patterns in the rate of disease and the diet/nutrition of that geographical area.
Migrant studies have shown that people who move from one country to another take on the new disease risks of the country to which the relocate, including cancer risks. If cancer were truly a purely genetic disease, this would not be true. Moreover, this reality tells us that cancer is an environmental disease which has important dietary links. In theory, we could prevent cancer if we simply knew what to eat. In theory.
Dr. T. Colin Campbell’s research over decades has shown that reducing the amount of protein (specifically Casein, an animal-based protein) in the diet can reduce dramatically the progression and growth of cancerous cells/tumors in the body. Casein consumption of higher than 10% of daily calories resulted in the promotion of cancerous cell development and according to traditional regulatory criteria, Casein has proven to be the most significant chemical carcinogen ever discovered. Consumption of high levels of animal proteins led to increased levels of carcinogen cell transport in the initiation phase as well as increased oxidation activity and cell replication in the promotion phase. Further studies by Dr. Campbell have shown that soy and wheat proteins DO NOT increase pre-cancer development in the body, even when consumed at level as high as 20% of dietary calories.
Clive McKay of Cornell University discovered a way to reduce tumor growth in rats through food changes. Whilst studying the impact of calorie restriction on longevity in rats, he not only found that their life spans doubled when their portions were halved, he found a correlation between portion size and tumor growth as well. Both cancerous and non-cancerous tumors (which are the major cause of death in old rats) reduced significantly. This could be due to the fact that abnormal (cancerous) cells function at a higher metabolic rate than normal cells and demand a high caloric intake to grow properly at their accelerated rate. By restricting caloric intake in the rats, Clive McKay observed that the entire cell division process (the beginnings of cancerous growth) was reduced, thereby limiting the ability for tumor growth to occur.
Studies have shown a direct relationship between dietary fat and various cancers. Cancers which have been linked to high levels of fat (especially animal fat/protein) in the diet include: Colon, Prostate and Breast. Cancers which have been linked to obesity include: Esophagus, Pancreas, Colon, Rectum, Breast (post-menopausal onset), Endometrium, Kidney, Thyroid and Gallbladder. This higher risk is thought to be directly connected to the high levels of saturated fats found in animal products. As animal product consumption increases so does the intake of dangerous fats and as multiple studies have shown, this increase appears to translate into higher levels of many types of cancers.
William W. Li, MD studied angiogenesis and its role in the development of disease in the body. He is one of the founders of the Angiogenesis Foundation. He has studied the impact of angiogenesis on cancer in particular and theorizes that if we can control the growth of blood vessels, we can control how much tumors are fed and hence allowed to grow. His TedTalk addresses which foods can aid in this process. In terms of cancer treatment, food is the chemotherapy we need and we can get it three times a day without side-effects – unless optimal health is a side effect.
Angiogenesis is a defense system which regulates the growth, number and balance of blood vessels in the body, it is the process by which our bodies grow blood vessels. Angiogenesis is a key component of the circulatory system, servicing every cell, organ and tissue in the body.
Interesting tid-bit about your blood vessels:
If you lay all the blood vessels in the body end to end they would measure 60,000 miles
– that is two times around the earth!
Blood vessels are lined with Endothelial Cells which serve as a regenerative factor for neighboring cells. These cells are in constant search of the ‘Goldilocks Zone’ – with not much and not too little angiogenesis action. Too much action (growth) can lead to cancer, diabetic blindness, arthritis and Alzheimer’s disease; while too little action (inadequate growth) can lead to various heart disease, some of which have an initial symptom of death, and stroke and well peripheral arterial failure.
As we all have pre-cancerous cells in our bodies, addressing how much those cells get fed (with our blood supply) could address how much those cells are able to grow. Restrict the blood supply and the cancer cannot grow. In the nutrition world there are some powerful mediators that can help to re-balance the body’s angiogenesis activity – tomato, berries, nuts, kale and mustard greens are just a few of these power houses of nutrition.
Studies on anti-oxidants teach us that foods high in these compounds can play a crucial role in whether or not abnormal pre-cancerous cells are able to divide and multiply in the body. During the first stage of cancer, when we consume a carcinogen, those initial abnormal cells need oxidation to occur for them to be able to divide and multiply. If we consume foods high in anti-oxidants, this process can be stopped before it ever is allowed to take root in the body. Let’s take a look at what science tells us about vitamins, minerals and their anti-oxidation powers.
Vitamin A – In plants, this vitamin comes in many variations though we mostly consume this in the form or carotenoids (provitamin A) which the intestine converts into Retinol. Retinol is crucial for healthy cell differentiation during the growth process and plays a key role in reproduction, bone growth, epithelial cell formation and immunity. Too little of this nutrient can lead to a compromised immune system while too much of it can lead to liver toxicity as excess retinol is stored there. Red and orange vegetables are high in Vitamin A as well as broccoli and dandelion root.
A note on toxicity: there is no evidence that plant-based vitamin A can cause toxic reactions in the liver, only excess levels of animal-based vitamin A has been shown to cause liver toxicity.
A correlation between Vitamin A consumption and low cancer rates has been shown in some studies, especially when a variety of foods containing Vitamin A are consumed regularly. This variety in ‘carotenoids’ needs to be consumed through foods as there is not evidence showing that supplements provide the same benefit as whole foods.
Carotenoid ‘Lycopene’ – shown to reduce prostate cancer rates; found in tomatoes, red fruits and vegetables
Carotenoid ‘Beta-Carotine’ – shown to reduce oral cancer rates; found in apricots, broccoli, carrots, melon, papaya, pumpkin, spinach and tomatoes
Carotenoid ‘Cryptoxanthin’ – shown to reduce cervical cancer rates; found in orange rind, papaya and apples
Nutritional Help for Cancer
· Limit animal products or ideally remove them completely from the diet
· Increase intake of anti-oxidant foods
· Practice caloric restriction
· Increase fiber rich foods
And one final note - in case you are inclined to get your vitamins and such from a pill instead of whole foods ... something to keep in mind is that Supplements have not been shown to impact health and well-being in the same way as whole foods. We cannot replicate the benefits of food with isolated chemical supplements. Bioactive compounds work as a team in the body and these compounds are found naturally in fruits, vegetable, nuts and whole grains. As there are approximately 8000 bioactive compounds necessary to have a synergistic effect on cancer prevention, creating a supplement that can rival whole foods has not yet been accomplished. Skip the pills – eat and heal with real whole foods that are nutrient dense, high in fiber and have no side-effects.
Well, we got our toes a little wet - yup, this barely touches the surface of what we know and even more to the point, what we do not know about cancer. But we do know this - optimal whole food nutrition is our best known option at this time in the fight against this disease. And that choice is ours to make - we have the power to choose our level of health and wellness. Choose wisely!