Sunday, 25 September 2011

The Big C - reducing the risk

Cancer - the big C as it often labelled, still represents fear, anxiety and a sense of hopelessness in many people. Chances are, we all know at least one person who has had the disease, is in remission from the disease or has been successfully cured of the disease. According to Cancer Research UK (a leading charity which offers advice, information and funds research into treatments for cancer), more than 1 in 3 people in the UK will develop a form of cancer throughout their lives. In the US, the statistic stands at 1 in 2. Cancer is alarmingly common across the globe and the reasons for why it appears to be more common has been debated from improved early diagnosis to a better medical understanding of the many different types of cancer (arguably, more than 200 different diseases share similar characteristics to cancer), not to mention the gamut of risk factors and predisposition to the disease.

However, many have espoused novel methods and natural approaches not only in treating the disease but in reducing the risk in the first place. In recent times, research has certainly shown that making changes to our lifestyle go a long way towards reducing the risk of developing cancer,. The obvious ones remain: stopping smoking, limiting alcohol, increasing fibre intake, increasing fruit and vegetables and taking more exercise..... amongst other strategies. And of course, one cannot ignore the stress element, nor indeed genetic factors, constitutional differences and environmental influences. These aside, the following are certainly noteworthy if the risks are relatively high (for whatever reason) and drug treatments or surgery is simply not an option:

Natural Approaches - Foods:

  • 5-a-day - getting 5 portions of fruit and veg a day continues to be part of the mainstay for health & well-being. It is important to vary the foods which ensures that all the vitamins and minerals are acquired rather than just a few in their correct quantities. It may help to choose by making sure all colours of fruit and veg are eaten (the 'red, amber and green' rule). Important nutrients such as carotenoids (compounds which determine the pigments in these foods) have significant health benefits including cancer-protective action.

  • green vegetables - there was always a reason why our parents were insistent on eating our greens! Green vegetables such as the brassicas (eg. broccoli and Brussels sprouts) contain compounds known as glucosinolates which are sulphur-based compounds with important cancer-fighting properties. It is thought that they are broken down when consumed into isothiocyanates which have a crucial function in the elimination of cancer-causing molecules known as carcinogens. They are also thought to have other mechanisms of action which effectively disrupt the signalling pathways needed for the initiation of normal cells into abnormal cancer cells.

  • high dose vitamin C (intravenous) - this continues to be highly controversial, namely because the scientific evidence is sadly lacking despite amazing case histories and success stories involving IV injections of high doses of vitamin C in cancer patients. Of course, this treatment is not licenced in the UK (nor indeed the US) but many patients are encouraged by the numerous cases of 'cure' and ease of burden with chemotherapy. The health benefits of vitamin C are well established but determining scientific evidence, experimental rigour and mechanism of action in cancer patients has a long way to go especially when the credibility of such studies remains disputed and sometimes unfairly criticised by the scientific and medical community.

  • berries - we are really talking about red and blue coloured berries, both types containing important antioxidants (compounds that confer protection against cancer) called anthocyanidins. Strawberries in particualr contain a very important cancer-fighting compound called ellagic acid. Antioxidants are chemicals (most of which are naturally occuring in fruit and vegs), which fight free radical damage. Free radicals are molecules that are released from toxic damage to cells and are inextricably linked to the ageing process. Many advocates of holistic healing and natural therapies have long supported consumption of antioxidants in the preservation of health & well-being and it is now known that these compounds have other equally significant health benefits.

  • raw chocolate - this is quite different from the sugar-laden confectionery that we have come to know and love! Raw chocolate has all the health benefits of cocoa beans (also known as cacao) but is minimally processed which includes leaving out the heating process, a main part of chocolate making. The cacao bean is packed with nutrition from flavonoids, antioxidants and polyphenols (all of which, to varying degrees and ways confer protection against cancer). Although there is adequate evidence to support the numerous health benefits of dark chocolate especially in heart health, it is worth investing time (and money in some cases) on good quality raw cholcolate.

  • fibre intake - part of all health regimes include some advice about increasing our fibre intake. This is because, not only does fibre (roughage) maintain the health and function of our bowels), it also helps to regulate cholesterol levels and eliminates toxins by attaching to it thus enabling it to be removed along with the fibre. Toxin build up in the body has long been thought to be a culprit in some cancers and therefore removing it from the body can only help to keep our systems clear of toxic build up limiting a predisposition to cancer. There is strong evidence to support that a high fibre diet is instrumental in protecting again bowel cancer, and of course the other health benefits remain.

  • reducing dairy - the entire dairy debate rages on.... First of all, as human beings, is our system actually designed to tolerate milk from a cow, or indeed any other processed product from it? Secondly, and probably more important for many, what of the nutritional content of cow's milk given the various additives used to market the final product such as hormones, antibiotics and nutrients added to it by way of fortification? It is more than a mere coincidence that the number of cases of gastrointestinal disorders and gut pathologies arise from modern diets; there continues to be much discussion and debate within the scienttific and medical community on this matter alone. That being said, milk is still a nutritious food and it certainly provides many of the essential vitamins and minerals especially for children. It is more a case of campaigning for a better quality product (including the conditions under which cows are kept, fed and milked) than a case of dairy being a contender as a cause of cancer.

  • increasing tomatoes in the diet (lycopene) - there is much research into the humble tomato, not least of which is because it is full of vitamin C and beta-carotene (a pro-vitamin A substance), both of which are powerful antioxidants thought to confer protection against cancer. Tomatoes also contain a more powerful anti-cancer sunstance called lycopene and recent research confirms its protective function in cancer.

  • essential fatty acids (EFAs) - these are the 'good fats' and especially the omega 3 fatty acids are thought to offer protection against many cancers including bowel and prostate cancer. Shop bought oils are best cold pressed (this means that they have been extracted without the use of heat therefore higher in quantity, so more expensive). However, natural sources of omega 3 oils include all fatty fish (such as salmon, mackerel, tuna etc...) as well as flaxseed oil, hemp seed oil, nuts seeds and avocado.

  • reducing processed meat - if you think about it, processed meat is not a naturally occurring food. It is hardly siurprising therefore that those who consume large amounts of processed meat risk compromising their health and a link has previsouly been made between this and the risk of cancer. However, consuming red meat is also controversial but in its natual form, it is a part of a healthy diet as long as it is consumed in moderation and balance with other fresh foods such as fruits and vegetables. If you are concerned, it is best to consider a part vegetarian, wholly vegetarian or a vegan diet. Meat alternatives/ substitutes such as fermented soya products are also an option (see my previous post on vegetarian options).

  • reducing salt intake - there seems to be a perennial drive to limit or reduce the daily salt intake. This is because there is so much salt already in food at purchase, particularly ready made meals, take aways and processed foods. Despite this however, somehow we seem to want to add more salt after preparation. A high salt intake has long been linked to high blood pressure but now, increasingly to a form of stomach cancer. This is because a high salt diet can induce a condition known as atrophic gastritis, a precursor to stomach cancer.

  • going organic (avoid processed foods) - the debate about organic food being better than non-organic rumbles on.... However, most health conscious folk don't really need convincing of the health benefits of organic over non-organic but remain limited due to the high cost for organic produce. Whether it is more nutritious remains contentious simply becasue it is nigh on impossible to prove scientifically due to the many constraints of trialling a scientific experiment into this comparison. Organic foods have many benefits and if reducing the risk of cancer is the mission, then it would appear to make sense to limit processed foods, limit or avoid foods grown non-organically, avoid synthetic ingredients and adopt a far healthier approach to food consumption and lifestyle. However, it is isn't as simple as this (as we know with cancer). Other measures must also consider the notion of consuming foods with a low GI (glycaemic index) or GL (glycaemic load).
Other Theories:

  • the raw food diet - this concept has progressed enormously since it was first introduced and there are an increasing number of food outlets (including restaurants) serving dishes solely prepared in such a way that preserves the integrity of the ingredients and therefore the nutritional elements of the foods. Suffice it to say, the notion of raw food lends itself to vegeraian food rather than any meat-based product (for obvious reasons!) and the advantages of a vegetarian diet has previously been demonstrated showing the reduced risk of certain diseases including cancer amonst vegetarians. The raw food concept still has a long way to go because nutritionists and scientists alike argue that a lack of processing (heating) that constitutes the cooking process does not mean that foods are more nutritious. This is because some foods release important enzymes only after heating even though some enzymes and nutrients are destroyed by cooking. Despite the debate, there is a logic to raw foods, not least of which is the limit to toxic burden, a recognition of our ancestral diet and a compatibility with our natural constitution. What may appear to be distinctly unappealing and unpalatable to most may actually turn out to be of real value in reducing the risk of cancer.

  • angiogenesis - cancerous growths are thought only to survive because of their ability to establish their own blood supply, a process known as angiogenesis. This has previously been shown to be the case in a number of controlled animal studies and clinical evidence. The remit now is to target drug treatments that will effectly hamper, halt or impede the progress of such a process and proliferation of a blood vessel network that firmly establishes not only the grwoth of the original cancer but also its spread (metastasis). This is a new and significant area of cancer reasearch which holds much promise for future treatments without the need for invasive or radical surgery.

  • high dose vitamin C - it's hardly surprising that this powerful antioxidant and nutrient is being investigated as a means of reducing cancer. One only has to have a look at its beneficial impact on the immune system to see how this would work. The immune system is inextricably linked to our health and well-being. A compromise to this at any level can have profound effects on our health including the onset of disease such as cancer.

  • reducing acidity - reducing the consumption of acidic foods is thought to help in the protection against some of the biggest diseases such as heart disease and cancer. It's a diet that is essentially composed of fruits, root vegetables, tubers, nuts, legumes and only very small amounts of meats and dairy products. The premise being that meat and other high protein foods contribute to uric acid production thereby increasing the acidity of the system, and increasing the risk of disease. It is true that our systems and body cells are slightly alkaline therefore a high acid diet will counteract the natural inclinication of the cells to be alkaline but unless the diet is extremely acidic (which means a deficiency of other foods), the body has its own complex set of mecahnisms to tackle variations in the acid-alkaline balance of its cells and tissues. There is no evidence to support the claims of a low acid diet and what is being touted as a novel diet in the fight against cancer is ostensibly a menu for a healthy, natural and wholefood diet.

  • reducing pesticide exposure - there is no doubt that the introduction of synthetic chemicals into our food and environment over the years has had a detrimental impact on our health, cancer being one of the outcomes. As yet unproven for some chemicals, there is a wealth of evidence and data on disease prevalence and patterns where the correlation between pesticide use (with pesticide residue being a complication) and disease is apparent. The bioaccumulation of these chemicals is another facet which is currently being debated across all quarters of the medical and scientific community.

  • the integrative approach - this is a complex area because much of this philiosophy is about individual focus and what is suitable for one person may not necessarily be relevant or effective for another. But what is clear is that examining all the factors and influences on a person may give valuable insignt into the risk profile as well as applying this same approach to treatment. Therefore dietary, environmental and genetic factors in addition to the profound influences of stress provides a holistic framework to examine such risk. It is vital to consider this because cancer is essentially an individual disease and it's the person's response and predisposition that must be emphasised rather than regarding it as a standard disease with a pathophysiology that is the exactly the same in all individuals.

Further Information:

angiogenesis - view the website for the National Cancer Institute which also gives information about treatments using angiogenesis inhibitors

reducing acidity - this is a useful webpage:

antioxidants and reducing cancer risk - this is a very interesting article: Goodman, M., Bostick, RM., Kucuk, O., Jones, DP. Clinical trials of antioxidants as cancer prevention agents: past, present and future. Free Radical Bio Med, 2011; 51(5): 1068-84

Useful websites:

Cancer Research UK

MacMillan Cancer Care