Signs & Symptoms
A radical solution
As a registered dietitian at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute (DFCI), Stacy Kennedy has heard it all before.
She knows most people are busy. She knows processed foods are convenient and cheaper. But she also knows that a healthy diet of fruits and vegetables can help prevent cancer and ultimately, save lives.
“Eating certain foods may decrease the risk of cancer or the aggressiveness of a current cancer,” Kennedy says.
When it comes to fighting cancer, lifestyles matter. Just ask the Washington, D.C.-based American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR).
Dr. Christopher Lathan, an oncologist at DFCI agrees. “There are certain lifestyle choices we can make to benefit us,” he said. “But you can still do those things and get cancer.” He stresses, however, that when a person follows a healthy lifestyle, “the odds are in your favor.”
Though shrouded in many misperceptions, the science on cancer has become clearer over the years.
First of all, it is not one disease. The cancer detected in the prostate is completely different from the cancer detected in the colon. As a matter of fact, there are more than 100 different cancers; breast cancer alone has more than seven.
Put simply, cancer is an unnecessary proliferation of cells, the body’s basic unit of life. Normally, cells grow and divide in an orderly fashion to keep the body sound. Even a scratch or cut sets this process into motion to replace the damaged goods. Cells also grow old and die.
But every now and then problems arise. New cells form when the body does not need them or old cells refuse to go when their time is up. These extra cells form tumors. Some of them are benign, which means they can grow but do not spread to other parts of the body. Once removed, they seldom come back.
A malignant tumor, on the other hand, is cancerous. These cells grow out of control, and invade and destroy tissues around them. What’s worse, they can break off, travel through the bloodstream and wreak havoc on other parts of the body.
While overweight, obesity and lack of exercise are highly correlated to several types of cancers, including postmenopausal breast, endometrial (uterine) and colon cancer, the importance of healthy eating cannot be overlooked. Certain foods are protective for overall good health.
The reason for this protection is a bit radical — literally. There is a constant process of building, dismantling and re-building of molecules to help the body function properly. Sometimes the process goes awry and results in an unstable molecule — or free radical — that hunts around for an acceptable partner to bond.
The problem is that the free radical can do its share of damage during the search, most notably to the DNA, the body’s blueprint. A damaged DNA can result in a mutation, which can in turn result in cancer.
But all’s not lost. The body has a defense system to stabilize the free radicals. A cadre of organisms called antioxidants devours the free radicals.
There’s a hitch, though. The body cannot make the antioxidants — it has to rely on the food absorbed in the body.
That’s where plant foods come in. These antioxidants — commonly referred to as phytochemicals or phytonutrients — are found in fruits, vegetables, beans, whole grains and even certain herbs.
That’s why eating a plant-based diet has been found to reduce the risk of many types of cancer.
There are thousands of phytonutrients, but only a handful has been identified. Although it’s not clear exactly which component in the phytonutrients deters cancer, it is clear that the antioxidants not only reduce the risk of cancer, they minimize its impact.
In one study, researchers found that apple extract slowed the rate of reproduction of human colon cancer and liver cancer cells.
The good news is that there is not a particular diet of plant foods a person must eat each day. The Produce for Better Health Foundation puts it simply. If a person eats at least one cup of blue/purple, green, white, yellow/orange and red each day, you’re making your recommended quota.
Health-protecting phytonutrients are “color-coded.” For instance, lycopene — that gives tomatoes and watermelon their red color — is known to combat prostate cancer, and dark green leafy vegetables, like collards and lettuce may protect against breast, stomach or oral cancers.
The cruciferous family, which includes broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage and brussel sprouts, has been found to stem the growth of many tumors and help the liver rid the body of toxic substances.
Kennedy sums it up. “Variety is key,” she said.