This article comes to us from Dr. Stewart B. Fleishman, author of Learn to Live Through Cancer: What You Need to Know and Do and the accompanying provider’s textbook Manual of Cancer Treatment Recovery: What the Practitioner Needs to Know and Do. Before Cook for Your LIFE became part of the Fred Hutch, Dr. Fleishman was an active member of the Cook for Your LIFE Board. He currently surveys cancer centers around the country for accreditation by the American College of Surgeons Commission on Cancer. He is the Founding Director of Cancer Supportive Services at Continuum Cancer Centers of New York: Beth Israel and St. Luke’s-Roosevelt which are now all part of Mt. Sinai Health Systems. In light of the array of cancers raising awareness this September, and with Breast Cancer Awareness month following in October, we asked Dr. Fleishman if food has a role in cancer prevention, and if so how?
Virtually every week, we hear about the results of new studies or theories that reinforce our belief that proper nutrition can prevent cancer. That creates a lot of responsibility for our foods. Rightly so, but a healthy diet is not a slam-dunk. Let’s dig a little deeper.
Let’s start at the level of individual cells. Cellular dysfunction – cells not working properly – is owed at least in part to inflammation. Think of skin that had been burned. It gets hot, red and swells due to fluids made as a result of the injury that collect where they cannot get out. The cell proteins in that fluid (“cytokines” cyto = cell, kine = protein) are slowly reabsorbed over days in the blood and lymph nodes, traveling to other parts of the body. These proteins are made via biochemical reactions involving oxidation. Anti-oxidants can counteract the production of these cytokines via the oxidation process.
Many cancer-fighting foods are considered antioxidants. Berries and other whole fruits, green vegetables, onions, garlic, turmeric, nuts, green teas, tomatoes and fish with lots of omega-3 fatty acids among the many well-known “healthy” foods that have anti-oxidant properties. A natural conclusion is that these foods help suppress cancer cells from forming or growing by opposing cytokines. We’d all like to believe that’s true. In reality, though convincing, studies proving so are less than perfect. If the belief that cancer is partly due to genetic changes is true, does eating these substances have the power to change our genetics? We do not yet know for certain, but believe so. Apart from combating the oxidation process, foods that may prevent cancer are also thought to help prevent cancer by discouraging one cell from chemically communicating with its neighbor so groups cannot form and by moving food through the system faster so that irritating compounds aren’t absorbed.
Whether you’re already convinced, or a skeptic wanting better proof, there is a larger public health question to consider. If we compare the food recommendations by the American Heart Association to reduce the risk of heart attack, the Department of Agriculture’s 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, and those endorsed by the American Cancer Society, they are virtually identical. Plates that contain mostly fruits and vegetables, whole grain carbohydrates, proteins from a variety of plant or low-fat animal sources are consensus among these three sets of recommendations. Their overlap centers on minimizing cellular oxidation whether it’s heart disease, cancer or maintaining an ideal body weight. So through imperfect in strict scientific sense, learning how to eat right is something we all agree upon. Though not as simple as opening a can or a pre-made meal, cooking using fresh whole foods is a skill that is easily learned fun — and the key to healthy eating.