Cancer. It is a word that we don't like especially if it is the diagnosis that our doctor is giving us. Cancer is a complex condition which is why despite many decades of research a "cure" has not been found. In a New England Journal of Medicine article entitled "Progress Against Cancer?" the authors report "The main conclusion we draw is that some 35 years of intense effort focused largely on improving treatment must be judged a qualified failure."1 They then argue that there should be a shift in emphasis towards prevention if there is to be substantial progress. Whenever possible, we should be determining the causes of diseases and then focus on prevention. The typical emphasis with cancer has been early detection which can be helpful, but wouldn't prevention be even better? The fire department doesn't promote "Fire Awareness Week" but instead "Fire Prevention Week." Interestingly, "Fire Prevention week falls in October, the same month as "Breast Cancer Awareness Month." I would like to see "Cancer Prevention Month!" We often blame our genetics for our diseases and especially cancer. However, only 1 out of 20 cases of breast cancer are hereditary. Let's look at what we know about cancer prevention.
The World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) and American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) published in 2018 the third expert report entitled "Diet, Nutrition, Physical Activity and Cancer: A Global Perspective."2 The report is the work of 100 scientists from 30 countries and is updated on an ongoing basis. What do they recommend?
Be a healthy weight: Keep your weight within the healthy range and avoid weight gain in adult life
Physical Activity: Be physically active as part of everyday life - walk more and sit less
Eat a diet rich in wholegrains, vegetables, fruit and beans: …a major part of your usual daily diet
Limit consumption of “fast foods” and other processed foods high in fat starches or sugars
Limit consumption of red and processed meats: Eat little if any processed meat
Limit consumption of sugar sweetened drinks: Drink mostly water and unsweetened drinks
Limit alcohol consumption: For cancer prevention, it’s best not to drink alcohol
Do not use supplements for cancer prevention: Aim to meet nutritional needs through diet alone
For mothers: breastfeed your baby, if you can: Breastfeeding is good for mother and baby
After a cancer diagnosis: follow our recommendations, if you can: Check with your health professional what is right for you
The report states "The panel believes that populations and people who achieve these recommendations will not only reduce their risk of cancer, as well as other diseases, but are also likely to improve their positive health and well being." So with these recommendations for prevention of the dreaded cancer, the media and physicians should be sharing this with the world. However, I would guess that most of you reading this have never seen these guidelines.
There is substantial and convincing evidence that animal products, in particular processed meats can promote certain types of cancer.3 We also know that animal protein increases Insulin-like Growth Factor-1 (IGF-1) which has been associated with increased cancer growth.4 Plant foods on the other hand, have strong association with decreased risk for many types of cancer. Animal products show only increased risk.
We all would like to prevent cancer and put our bodies in the best condition to fight cancer. The WCRF/AICR gives us the template to prevent cancer. The science is becoming more and more clear that a plant-based approach rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes nuts and seeds gives us the best nutrition to prevent cancer. Stay tuned for more on cancer prevention in future articles!
by Michael C. Hollie, MD
Bailar JC, Smith EM. N Engl J Med 1986; 314:1226-1232
World Cancer Research Fund/American Institute for Cancer Research. Diet, Nutrition, Physical Activity and Cancer: A Global Perspective, 2018
Cancer Causes Control. 2001 Aug;12(6):557-67.
Allen NE, Appleby PM, Davey GK, Kaaks R, Rinaldi S, Keys TJ. The Associations of Diet with serum Insulin-like Growth factor I and Its Main Binding Proeins in 292 Women Meat-eaters, Vegetarians, and Vegans. Cancer Epidemiol Biomarkers Prev. 2002 Nov;11(11):1441-8