Cancer. I've seen it up close and personal and it's not pretty. My sister had stage 3 breast cancer when she was 31 back in 1998. She went through chemotherapy, stem cell transplant, surgery, and radiation. She had an aggressive cancer and she needed aggressive treatment. She survived the disease and the treatment (Go Deb!). She's one of the lucky ones.
Cancer is just all too prevalent these days. Each year 12.7 million people in the world learn they have cancer, and 7.6 million people die from the disease. Cancer is the second leading cause of death in the U.S., beat out only by heart disease. The good news is that, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one-third of cancer deaths can be avoided through prevention, and another third through early detection and treatment.
For those with cancer, nutrition can promote general well-being and support the body's innate healing process. It can work complementary to conventional treatment by reducing side effects and increasing the efficacy of treatment. It is interesting to note that women who have had breast cancer die of heart disease more often than they do from the cancer itself, likely because of the aggressive treatments needed to battle the cancer. Taking this into consideration can impact nutritional and supplemental recommendations.
There is mounting research showing that nutrition, lifestyle, and environmental changes can help with the prevention of cancer as well as with support during cancer treatment. Cancer rates vary across countries, associated with processed and refined diets. The rate of tumors that progress to detection is 5 to 10 times greater in high risk (poor diet) countries than low risk (healthy diet) countries. If we want to give ourselves the best chance for disease prevention and health promotion, we need to eat and live well.
In the interest of not making this blog too lengthy (okay, not lengthier than it already is), I'll focus on a client I worked with recently who had Stage 1 breast cancer a year prior. She had a lumpectomy and radiation for treatment. Although this blog emphasizes breast cancer, many of the recommendations are beneficial for other types of cancer (and for health in general). Breast cancer is the most common form of cancer in women in the U.S. (the lifetime risk is 1 in 8) and is second only to lung cancer for the most common cause of cancer death.
For diet, I recommended the following:
- Emphasize phytonutrients with anti-cancer properties. By eating a rainbow assortment of fruits and vegetables, particularly the dark color produce, you don't have to know about which food gives you what benefit but you are assured of getting the variety of nutrients. Antioxidants are abundant in fruits and vegetables, but can also be found in beans, nuts, herbs, and grains. They help fight free radicals which are known to promote cancer. Some examples of good phytonutrients are:
– Lignans - flaxseeds
– Ellagic acid - grapes, strawberries, raspberries
– Chlorophyll - Brussels sprouts, leafy greens
– Carotenoids - carrots, yams, squash
– Categchins - green tea
– Sulforaphane - brocolli sprouts
– Curcumin - turmeric
– Allyl sulfides - garlic, onions
- Choose an anti-inflammatory diet. An anti-inflammatory diet is important because inflammation increases the growth of blood vessels that feed the cancer. For a low inflammatory diet, avoid processed foods, trans fats, and high lectin foods. Lectins are carbohydrate binding proteins found in plants. High lectin foods include legumes, grains, and nightshade vegetables (tomatoes, potatoes, eggplant, and peppers). It is also beneficial to eat foods high in omega-3s and to eliminate food allergens (top offenders are gluten, dairy, and soy).
- Balance blood sugar. The insulin surges from the lack of blood sugar regulation feeds inflammation. To balance blood sugar, eat protein with all meals and snacks.
- Get Omega-3s. My client does not like fish, so I recommended she take a fish oil supplement. If you like fish, good omega-3 choices include salmon, mackerel, halibut, and sardines. Fish oil contains EPA and DHA which keep the blood from clotting too quickly and provide anti-inflammatory benefits. Other good sources of Omega-3s include walnuts, flaxseed, and chia seeds.
- Eat organic foods, especially for the higher pesticide produce.
- Buy hormone-free meats. Foods that are not hormone-free could contain estrogenic hormones that are given to animals to promote growth.
- Limit packaged foods, trans fat, hydrogenated oils, and refined sugar. Limiting sugar is essential for those with cancer because insulin surges feed inflammation.
- Avoid carcinogenic foods such as foods that are smoked, barbecued, or treated with nitrates.
- Eat whole grains. My client does not eat a lot of carbs because she is concerned they will make her gain weight. When she does eat carbs, it is wheat bread or cereal. I suggested she'd benefit from substituting these carbs with better grains like brown rice or quinoa. This will help increase her fiber intake and help keep her full longer. Some studies show that fiber is beneficial for breast cancer prevention.
- Reduce caffeine and alcohol. (Drink more water.) Some studies show that consuming as few as three alcoholic drinks a week increases the potential for breast cancer by 50%. Alcohol may interfere with the liver's ability to detoxify chemicals and excess estrogen in the body. My client used to drink a lot of caffeinated beverages throughout the day. Coffee is an adrenal stimulant and burdens the liver so that it is less able to detoxify the body. Switching to decaffeinated green tea would be a good substitution.
- Do a detox. Detoxing periodically is a great cancer prevention strategy. Detoxing helps to keep the immune system healthy, keeps inflammation down, and helps reduce free radical damage. For those with cancer, I would not recommend doing a detox until a year after treatment when the body is strong enough.
If you are interested, you can download a handout I created highlighting key anticancer foods including green tea, turmeric, cruciferous vegetables, berries, and garlic & onions.well.
Cancer and health, like "Autoimmune Disease and Health", is a four quadrant endeavor. It is important that you are healthy in all aspects of your life—Mind, Body, Relationships, and Environment.
For lifestyle, I recommended a few changes as well:
- Reduce stress. My client has a lot of stress in her life. We talked about what type of stress-reducing activities would work for her. After tossing out a few ideas, she liked "kitty meditation." Three times a week, she committed to spending 5-10 minutes doing nothing but snuggling with her cats. During this time, she is mindful—hearing the sound of the purr and feeling the softness of the fur. For more ideas on finding your own style of meditation, read Meditation with Hollywood. Other ideas she came up with was walking with her husband after dinner and taking 5 minute work breaks with relaxing music or guided meditations recorded on her iPod. She also decided to try listening to relaxing music on her drive home instead of listening to news radio. What are the ways that you can reduce stress in your life?
- Exercise more. My client did not exercise very much. I recommended that she get a pedometer and aim for 10,000 steps a day. This is good for people who like structures and goals. Another idea is to make walk or gym dates with a friend. You are more likely to cancel out on yourself than a friend. One study showed that women who engaged in up to 2 hours of brisk walking a week had an 18% lower risk of getting breast cancer. Exercise is also great for reducing stress. For other exercise ideas, read Movement by Gypsy.
- Reduce exposure to radiation. Opt out of the radiation machines at the airport, requesting a body pat-down instead. I do this all of the time. And, I know my next recommendation may be controversial, but I suggest that my clients who have had breast cancer or are concerned about breast cancer do their research about mammograms. I am also at risk for breast cancer and for me, personally, I get mammograms sparingly. I don't get them yearly. I do them every other year. Instead, I do yearly MRIs. Other good detection techniques include regular self and physician exams. Mammograms provide direct radiation to the breast. Radiation causes free radicals which promote cancer. A Canadian study of almost 90,000 women aged 40-49 at 15 hospitals across Canada found a 30-50% increase in deaths from breast cancer among women over 40 who had annual mammograms versus those who were given only physical exams. Everyone needs do their own research, weigh the options, and make the decision that is best for them.
- Reduce exposure to toxins by choosing natural beauty and cleaning products. Another good idea is to get an air cleaner in your house.
There are several supplements I have recommended for my cilent.
- Vitamin D. In an initial blood test, my client showed a Vitamin D level of 25ng/ml. She now takes Vitamin D to get her up into the 60 to 80 range.
- Omega-3 fish oils. As mentioned above, omega-3s are great for reducing inflammation and so much more.
- DIM is a supplement that can bind to estrogen receptors, displacing the body's estrogen which is beneficial for those concerned about breast cancer risk.
- Curcumin. As mentioned above, curcumin is a powerful antioxidant.
- Sulphoraphane. As mentioned above, this is a powerful phytonutrient and has anticancer properties. I recommended a supplement that is a cultivated form of broccoli seed.
I don't have all the answers. No one does. For my own health, I do the research and make the best decisions for me. As a health coach, I can give recommendations to my clients based on what I have learned from studying the research and working with other clients, but ultimately my clients are the ones that need to make the best decisions for themselves. There are no guarantees that if we live well, we won't get cancer or another disease. But, for me, there is enough evidence showing that how we live and what we eat can impact our health. I want to give myself the best fighting chance I can to stay healthy.
This is part of a series looking at specific diseases and what can be done from a nutritional and lifestyle standpoint. Also part of this series is Autoimmune Disease and Health, Heart Disease and Health, Diabetes and Health, and more. These will be forthcoming.
Dina Colman, MA, MBA, is a healthy living coach and writer. She has her Master’s degree in Holistic Health Education from John F. Kennedy University and her MBA from Kellogg at Northwestern University. She founded Four Quadrant Living—a simpler, natural, more fun way to a healthier, happier, and energetic life. Four Quadrant Living provides information and motivation for healthy living through nourishment of the four quadrants of our lives—Mind, Body, Relationships, and Environment. Dina has a private practice, working with clients to help them create health in their lives by eating well, finding the fun in exercise, reducing stress, managing relationships, and creating a healthy environment. Dina is also writing a book about healthy living that will be published later this year. Contact Dina at email@example.com