Cancer. The word itself is enough to make you shudder. Perhaps one of the most frightening aspects of the disease is that there is still so much we don't know about it. But progress is being made in understanding the contributing factors and in developing treatments. Heredity influences your risk of developing certain cancers, but factors considered "environmental" -- such as smoking and alcohol consumption -- appear to play important roles, too.
Another environmental influence that has garnered more and more attention is diet -- both in terms of its role in triggering cancer and its potential role in helping to prevent it. Indeed, according to the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR), 30 to 40 percent of all cancers are directly linked to food, physical activity, and body weight. Unlike heredity, diet is one of the possible cancer contributors that we can change (along with smoking and drinking habits).
So what dietary choices can you make to help lessen your risk? That's the catch. We don't know all the answers yet, but we suspect we're close to quite a few. In this article, we will look at dietary changes you can make as part of an alternative treatment to possibly lower your risk for cancer.
The Big Picture
Cancer, the number two killer in the United States, isn't a single disease. Cancer is an umbrella term for more than 200 different conditions, which all have in common the out-of-control growth of cells.
Each type of cancer is unique, with its own set of triggers and treatments. Proving a dietary link to cancer is not easy. Although the connection to some types of cancer seems more solid, some suspected ties are merely educated guesses based on statistics from epidemiology. Epidemiology is a branch of science that observes and compares the rates of diseases in different environments and situations. Actual clinical trials that put theories to the ultimate test are expensive and difficult to design, and they cannot provide valid results for decades, because cancer takes that long to develop.
For years, scientists focused on specific substances in foods that might cause cancer. At first, suspicions centered around manmade creations, such as additives, artificial sweeteners, and pesticides. Then researchers refocused their attention on the many natural toxins in foods that were potentially cancerous, such as aflatoxins in peanuts and solanine in potatoes.
Today, the dietary fight against cancer has progressed further still. These days, when we talk about taking dietary steps to prevent cancer, we're talking about being proactive. Today's preventive strategies go beyond simply avoiding potentially cancer-causing substances in certain foods to actually using diet to strengthen the body's defenses against cancer and toxic substances. Indeed, there's more and more evidence that what you do eat can actually offer protection against, and therefore lower your chances of developing, cancer. Food has gone from enemy to ally. What's more, a diet that may help protect against cancer appears remarkably similar to a diet that is heart healthy and weight wise as well.
Antioxidants to the Rescue
Much of the cancer-protective promise of certain foods appears to stem from antioxidant nutrients concentrated in those foods. An antioxidant is a substance that protects the body's cells from oxidation, the chemical process in which oxygen molecules attach to almost anything in their path, creating destructive compounds called free radicals. Free radicals aren't foreign invaders. They are normal inhabitants of your body, produced in response to everyday chemical reactions that normally occur in your body.
Your body has a built-in protection mechanism and can, to some extent, guard itself against the damaging chain reactions that free radicals set off. But sometimes free radicals get out of control, outpacing the body's natural repair system, such as when too many are produced in response to cigarette smoke, ultraviolet light, and environmental pollutants including smog, car exhaust, and ozone. Left unchecked, they run amok, causing damage and altering the genetic makeup of the normal cells in your body. This type of genetic alteration can pave the way for cancer.
You can see evidence of simple oxidation when a car rusts, when butter turns rancid, and when a cut apple turns brown. But dip an apple in lemon juice immediately after you cut it and -- voilà! -- it remains white. Why? The vitamin C in the lemon juice is an antioxidant, and it protects the apple from oxidation. In essence, the same thing happens in your body, on a grander scale. Free radicals are thought to cause damage that may lead not only to cancer but to other conditions that become more common with age (and therefore with greater free-radical exposure), such as heart disease and cataracts. So there is hope that antioxidants from the diet can help protect against that damage and help prevent or at least delay such conditions by neutralizing free radicals.
Only certain vitamins and minerals have antioxidant properties. Three vitamins have received the most attention: vitamin A (in its beta-carotene form), vitamin C, and vitamin E. The trace mineral selenium also plays a role in the antioxidant drama, not as an antioxidant itself but as an element of an antioxidant. Riboflavin, which is one of the B vitamins, and magnesium have also been recognized as having some antioxidant properties.
In the next section, we will look at foods that help boost immunity as well as food items that are emerging as valuable weapons in the fight against cancer.
This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.