Food and Cancer

As we age, we begin to see some of our family and friends become afflicted with the disease which we all dread—cancer. Even the word is scary, and all of us would like to know how it develops, how to prevent it, and how to treat it. There has been so much written about cancer in the media over the years, and there is so much other information which comes in from the medical profession, the food industry, and self-designated “experts” on the subject that we can’t figure out the right path to follow.

One of the major information sources on the etiology of cancer and other diseases of man was written by Dr. T. Colin Campbell entitled The China Study. In his book, he noted that there were three stages of cancer growth: initiation (or beginning), promotion (or development), and progression to a serious and often deadly disease process. In his book, he clearly shows the relationship between cancer and food.

Throughout the years, conventional wisdom has been to stick with the well-known scientific studies, which often reveal that a particular drug, type of x-ray, or surgical therapy may give the best outcome for a particular type of cancer. When you are personally faced with cancer, you must take responsibility for looking at your treatment options, weighing their risks, and being realistic about possible outcomes of your treatment modality. Thank goodness for the Internet! In both the prevention process and the treatment process for cancer, it’s important for your body to be in the best possible shape to deal with the cancer as well as the treatment process. Chemotherapy can be thought of as a form of poison that is used to kill cancer cells in your body (but hopefully not good healthy cells). The same is true for radiation therapy and surgical procedures, and the more selective the process, the less peripheral or residual damage to the good tissue. However, it’s not always possible to undergo treatment without associated problems, called “side effects” or complications.

In his book, Campbell noted that dietary factors are extremely important in both the initiation and promotion of cancer growth. In addition, many researchers have found how important it is to promote health in your body, particularly through dietary means either in a preventive way or during the treatment process. Campbell likened our bodies to an organic garden where plants and weeds can be controlled by promoting factors which might decrease weed growth and adding nutrients that enhance good plant growth. We see from much research and epidemiological work that the main “fertilizers” for growth of cancer cells are refined sugar, starches, and breads because these are “pro-inflammatory” and raise the levels of insulin and IGF (insulin growth factors) in your body. Combined with lower amounts of dietary omega 3’s and increased omega 6’s, these “fertilizers” increase the inflammatory process that promotes growth of cancer cells. Additionally, hormones present in non-organic meat and non-organic dairy products can stimulate your IGF levels, which speed up the growth rate of cancer cells.

Just as there are foods that promote tumors, there are foods that reduce the growth and aggressiveness of many cancers. Green tea, for example, contains numerous polyphenols and catechins, such as EGCG, a powerful nutritional molecule that helps prevent angiogenesis or formation of new blood vessels by cancerous cells. There were two large studies done in Japan which demonstrated that persons with cancer who drank three cups of green tea a day had a 57 percent lower relapse rate than those who drank only one cup a day. In prostate cancer, five cups of green tea a day reduced the risk that cancer would progress to an advanced stage by 50 percent. Additionally, small quantities of soy protein are helpful for prevention and treatment in estrogen-dependent cancer because phytochemicals present within it block the action of estrogen on tumors, thereby reducing some of the stimulus for growth of cancer cells.

It has been noted by researchers that the type of fats consumed makes a remarkable difference in behavior of a developing cancer. Olives contain an abundance of antioxidants which are able to reduce the initial development of cancer. Olive oil contains certain antioxidant chemicals and lignans which are linked with slower progression of cancer. Interestingly, olive oil also contains polyphenols and oleic acid, which inhibits the expressions of the HER2 gene, which is responsible for one-fifth of all breast cancers. While it does not replace Herceptin® (a medication that is effective in inhibiting the HER2 gene), it is a helpful addition to prevention and the course of therapy in this particular cancer. Dietary supplements extracted from soy such as isoflavones may actually promote tumor growth, so only soy protein from food sources should be ingested.

In addition to soy protein, olive oil, and green tea, tumeric (a spice which contains curcumin) has strong anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer properties. In India, the average person consumes 1.5 to 2 grams (approximately one-half teaspoon) a day of tumeric. This has been shown to inhibit growth in cancer of the colon, prostate, lung, breast, ovary, and even leukemia cells. It reduces angiogenesis in tumors and forces cancer cells to die through a process known as “apoptosis.” It is good to note that the incidence of lung cancer, colon cancer, breast cancer, and kidney cancers is much lower in India than the U.S. Also, the rate of prostate cancer is about 1/50th of that in the U.S.

In addition to the nutritional substances that could aid in prevention and treatment of cancer, there are nutrients that stimulate the immune system as well. Berries of all types seem to reduce the growth of blood vessels in tumors. Strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, and blueberries all have anti-angiogenic properties against tumors. Other foods such as plums and raw nuts tend to reduce growth of tumors and improve immunity. By eating foods which inhibit growth, these can act in synergy with chemotherapy and surgery. This has been substantiated in the laboratory and clinically many times. One particular study in India showed that 100 percent of cancer-prone strain of female mice that were injected with dimethylbenzanthracene (DMBA) developed breast cancer, but if they were given multiple nutrients found in healthy food, they did not develop cancer. If the mice received only one or two of the anti-cancer nutrients, only 50 percent developed tumors, and of those that received three or more components, only 10 percent would develop breast cancer. This is convincing evidence of the synergy between cancer-producing chemicals and cancer-treating food nutrients showing real beneficial results.

In summary, by simply enhancing your nutritional intake, you can reduce the development of most cancers by 50 percent or more and improve results in synergy with anti-cancer medication by 50-80 percent. You can truly improve your immune system and your health status by being knowledgeable about the right nutrients, and you will live a longer and healthier life. 

Dr. Carraway is the director of the Plastic & Cosmetic Surgery Center of EVMS.

James H. Carraway, M.D.

Dr. James Carraway is a full-time academic and practicing clinical plastic surgeon.  He is Director of the Cosmetic & Plastic Surgery Center of EVMS, is board certified in surgery and plastic surgery, and is a fellow of the American College of Surgeons.  Dr. Carraway has been teaching and practicing for 30+ years and has been director and chairman of residency training programs and fellowship programs in plastic surgery.
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