The Cancer Survivor's Diet

Once you’ve been bitten by The Big C, you have to start eating like your life
depends on it. So it’s out with the meat, alcohol and trans fats, and in with the fruits,
vegetables and vitamins.

By H.K. Jones

May 2006

Diana Dyer, a registered dietitian from Ann Arbor, Michigan, was diagnosed with a cancer called neuroblastoma when she was six months old. She was treated successfully with surgery and very large doses of radiation therapy.

When Dyer was 34 she discovered a lump in her left breast, which was determined to be malignant. She had a radical mastectomy and underwent six cycles of chemotherapy. During the following 10 years, her white blood cell count (an indicator of immune function) never returned to the normal range. Dyer’s next bout with breast cancer began when a tumor was detected on her 10-year anniversary mammogram. She once again endured chemotherapy and surgery.

After her third battle with cancer, Dyer decided she needed something more than conventional cancer treatments to both keep the disease at bay and achieve optimal health. A fork became her weapon of choice—even a dietitian could learn to eat healthier. So she searched the scientific literature for guidance and developed her own anti-cancer diet. She has not had a recurrence to date and her immune function is often within the normal range.

Unlike Dyer, Kathleen Quinn of Washington, DC has never been diagnosed with cancer. But her mother has ovarian melanoma and her grandmother died of the disease, so she knows all too well the danger she faces. To help her fight against the looming killer, Quinn has also made substantial changes to her diet. “I’m completely terrified of cancer and I want to protect myself,” she says.
Quinn and Dyer are just a few of the many people worried about cancer who are turning to their diets for protection, and it’s no wonder.

Diet and Disease

Cancer is not a single disease, but the generic name for over 100 medical conditions involving uncontrolled and abnormal cell growth. Even though scientists are only beginning to understand the causes and development of cancer, a growing body of evidence shows that what we eat plays a large role in its prevention. According to the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR), 30% to 40% of all cancers are directly linked to our diet and related factors like staying fit and maintaining a healthy weight.

For more than 10 million people in the US who have undergone successful cancer treatment, proper nutrition is absolutely critical. “Studies show that what we eat can influence a whole range of hormones, growth factors and controllers of cell growth, leading to the expectation that diet plays an important role in survival after cancer,” says Karen Collins, registered dietitian and AICR nutrition advisor. In fact, each time you pick a fruit, vegetable or bean, you add a brick to the foundation of your health—an active part you can take in your recovery and survival.

It’s important to keep in mind that cancer rarely happens in a vacuum. “Cancer survivors also face significant risk, in some cases greater than others, of non-cancer health problems that are also affected by nutrition including heart disease, osteoporosis and diabetes,” Collins says. “And unfortunately, though the original cancer has been treated, cancer survivors are just as much at risk of developing another new cancer, so a diet to lower risk of getting cancer is very relevant to survivors.”

Consuming a well-balanced diet is important for everyone. But for folks living with cancer this approach has added benefits—research shows that diet changes can improve your quality of life, smoothing your transition into survivorship. In fact, thinking of food as your medicine is an easy, satisfying way to put yourself on the road to a cancer-free future.

Powerful Plants

Whether you’ve battled cancer one, two or even three times, switching to a largely plant-based diet is the most important step you can take to improve your health and decrease your chances for a recurrence. Study after study illustrates that a diet rich in vegetables, fruits, whole grains and beans can fight this deadly disease in several ways.

First of all plants are rich in vitamins and minerals, including those that act as antioxidants. These substances, such as vitamins C and E, fight free radicals, rogue molecules that can damage the DNA that cells use to reproduce themselves. DNA damage can, over time, turn cells cancerous.

All plants are also chock full of phytochemicals, the biologically active compounds in plants that define their color and flavor. These babies pack a multi-colored punch; researchers have found that they can not only bolster the immune system and defuse potential carcinogens, or cancer-causing substances, but may also usher hazardous chemicals out of the body before cellular damage arises. Scientific understanding of phytos is still in its infancy, but all signs certainly point toward the produce aisle.

The greater the variety of fruits, vegetables and plant foods you choose, the more vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and phytochemicals you will consume, along with their disease-fighting powers. And the more colorful the better; Holly Clegg, author of Eating Well Through Cancer (Wimmer Cookbooks), says, “Don’t turn eating into a science project but select delicious foods with color, as color offers variety including all the important nutrients contributing to good health.” So while mom always said eat your greens, don’t forget about your reds, blues and oranges too!

Need more reasons to feast on flora? A new study suggests you should also include cruciferous vegetables like broccoli and cabbage in your anti-cancer diet. Researchers found they protect against lung cancer by breaking down and inactivating cancer-causing chemicals.

Once you’ve selected your brightly colored veggies, don’t forget those all-important browns, the ones you find in such whole grains as whole-wheat bread and pasta, along with oatmeal, brown rice and such exotic grains as amaranth, millet and quinoa. Their bountiful bran not only prevents constipation but also helps stabilize blood sugar and satiate hunger, both of which can keep you from overeating. That’s important because overeating (and underexercising) can lead to obesity, which has been linked to several types of cancer. What’s more, these hearty foods bring their own slate of nutrients to your table, including vitamins B and E, and the minerals magnesium, selenium and zinc (a good multivitamin-mineral supplement can help make up for nutrition shortfalls).

The Other Side of the Plate

Keeping harmful substances out of your body is just as important as putting healthy foods in. Topping the list of damaging items to keep out are tobacco and alcohol.

Every time you inhale smoke from a cigarette, chemicals get into your bloodstream through your lungs and cause harm. In fact, tobacco is the leading cause of lung cancer and also contributes to malignancies of the mouth, throat, pancreas, cervix and bladder. The bottom line: Quit smoking.

While you’re at it, quit drinking. Alcohol is a tumor-promoter and a carcinogen, making it a poor choice of beverage for cancer survivors. To help prevent recurrence you’re best bet is to avoid alcohol altogether. If you want to reap the benefits of the phytochemical found in red wine [resveratrol] try grape juice, grapes, raisins and peanuts instead. (Grape and grape seed phytochemicals are also available in supplement form.)

Another risky endeavor for cancer survivors is eating red meat. Many studies have demonstrated a direct relationship between developing colorectal cancer and the consumption of red and processed meats. The AICR recommends that if eaten at all, red meat should be limited to less than three ounces daily.

Instead of using red meat as the main course, let it be a tasty accent in a dish based on vegetables or grains. Better yet, follow the advice of Dyer, author of A Dietitian’s Cancer Story (Swan Press), and “choose fish or poultry and increase your intake of beans and legumes as a daily protein source, of which all varieties contain a cornucopia of phytochemicals that have cancer-fighting activity.” Going vegetarian a few times a week is also a good idea. Think spinach lasagna, pasta primavera, or beans and rice.

There’s fat, like the saturated stuff in red meat, and then there’s good fats: monounsaturates like olive and canola oils, and the fats in avocados, nuts and fish, which have been associated with protection against cancer. You want to avoid oils high in saturated fats, such as palm, palm kernel and cottonseed oils.

Also steer clear of hydrogenated trans fats, as they are potentially carcinogenic. Where is this dangerous stuff hiding? Well, small amounts occur naturally in meat and dairy products, but that’s not the real problem. To make foods stay fresh on the shelf or to turn liquid oils into solids, food manufacturers hydrogenate (add hydrogen to) polyunsaturated oils, turning them into saturated nightmares. Thus, margarine, shortening and some cooking oils, as well as foods made with them, constitute a major source of trans fat. Check your labels carefully for trans and if any food contains “hydrogenated” or “partially hydrogenated” fats, avoid it.

Finally, to help maintain an optimum weight, aid digestion, stimulate appetite, reduce stress and regulate bowel habits, you need to get moving. Keeping your body at its peak condition through both aerobic and resistance training is just another step in keeping you healthy, fit and cancer-free.

In fact, pumping iron has helped breast cancer survivors gain both strength and self-confidence, according to a study in the journal Cancer.

Using diet to limit recurrence is a critical part of your survival. According to Dyer, “Cancer survivors are at increased risk of developing secondary cancers. I have chosen a diet to both minimize my overall risk of developing many types of cancer and optimize my overall health.” You should do the same.

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