The National Cancer Institute estimates that one in two men and one in three women in the United States will develop cancer.
For decades, modern medicine has held out hope for a cancer cure. But cancer has proven a complicated, elusive foe and finding a magic bullet that will eradicate it is unlikely anytime soon. Scientists agree that our genes predispose us to various health conditions throughout our lifetime — including cancer. The good news is that the choices we make on a daily basis — including the foods we eat, the toxins we’re exposed to, how much exercise we get and how we handle stress — appear to be the strongest predictors of whether or not we will develop cancer.
A Blueprint Gone Bad
To create a lifestyle that will help protect you from developing cancer, it’s important to know how cancer arises. Fact: Our bodies generate cancerous cells throughout our lives. When you consider that millions of cells are being replaced every second, it’s not surprising that glitches sometimes occur, resulting in the formation of malignant cells. Environmental toxins, radiation, viruses and other physical irritants are some of the factors that can alter DNA molecules within a cell (DNA is like a cellular blueprint that tells each cell how to reproduce).
These altered cells don’t abide by normal cell rules. They reproduce more rapidly than the cells from which they originated, and they bear little resemblance to the original cells. Unlike normal cells, they invade neighboring tissues and spread to other areas of the body. As they multiply, they form tumors, destroying healthy tissue in the process and interfering with organ function.
Fortunately, every cell mutation doesn’t result in cancer because the immune system searches out and eradicates cells that have gone astray. Specialized white blood cells are constantly on patrol, looking for cancerous cells. When they find an abnormal cell, they engulf and destroy it before it can reproduce. In addition, any cell that begins to multiply out of control is programmed to commit suicide, a process called apoptosis. Cancer arises when the immune system has become overwhelmed. Therefore, the best way to prevent cancer is to take specific steps to keep your immune system functioning optimally and to avoid the environmental and dietary stressors that can trigger cell mutations.
Many positive choices within your control can create a lifestyle that will strengthen your immune system and enhance your daily life.
• Avoid environmental toxins. Every exposure to toxins increases the possibility of malignant cellular changes. Buy organic foods, use filtered water and avoid using toxic chemicals in your home and garden. Don’t use tobacco in any form and stay away from secondhand smoke.
• Reduce your exposure to radiation. This includes diagnostic X-rays, unless they are absolutely necessary. Radiation causes damage to DNA that is cumulative over a lifetime.
• Treat infections promptly. Lingering infections, such as gum disease, tax the immune system and can inhibit immune function.
• Eat a nutrient-rich diet. Nutrient deficiencies are a significant cause of depressed immunity. Base your diet on fresh vegetables and fruits, high-quality protein foods, complex carbohydrates, and monounsaturated and omega-3 fats.
• Don’t overdo alcohol. Avoid excessive amounts of alcohol (more than a few drinks per week). If you are going to drink, the best choice is organic red wine, which has some health benefits. But be aware that any alcohol intake appears to be associated with an increased risk of some cancers.
• Exercise regularly. Physical activity enhances immune function and stimulates circulation of blood and lymph, which improves detoxification. Regular exercise has been shown to lower the risk of several types of cancers. Plan for four hours or more per week of moderately vigorous aerobic exercise — brisk walking, biking, dancing, swimming and hiking are all excellent choices.
• Get plenty of sleep. Allow sufficient time for sleep and make sure you sleep in total darkness, because light decreases your body’s production of the hormone melatonin. Low levels of melatonin are associated with an increased risk of cancer.
• Reduce stress. Emotional stress stimulates the secretion of adrenal hormones, including adrenaline and corticosteroids, which have a suppressive effect on immunity. Practice some form of stress reduction, such as meditation, deep breathing exercises or yoga, every day.
Protect Yourself with These Foods
The foods you choose to eat on a daily basis can significantly lower your risk of cancer. The following steps will help you create a diet rich in protective nutrients.
• Watch your fat intake. Diets high in saturated fats, polyunsaturated oils and hydrogenated oils greatly increase cancer risk by generating large numbers of dangerous free radicals (molecules that damage cells). However, the type of fats you eat may be more important than the amount. Some fats, such as extra-virgin olive oil, actually protect your cells against cancer by making cell membranes more resistant to the destructive effects of free radicals.
• Eat plenty of fiber. Fiber helps move wastes more quickly through the intestinal tract, shortening the time toxins remain in the body. Try to eat about 35 grams of fiber every day. Cooked dried legumes have about seven grams of fiber per serving; most fruits and vegetables contain about three grams per serving.
• Include omega-3 rich foods. Omega-3 fatty acids inhibit hormone-like compounds called prostaglandins, which cause inflammation and interfere with the immune system’s ability to detect and destroy cancerous cells. Cold-water fish such as salmon, mackerel and sardines are rich in omega-3 fatty acids; flaxseeds are a good vegetarian source. Eat two to three servings of cold-water fish weekly, and/or one tablespoon of flaxseed oil or one tablespoon of freshly ground flaxseeds daily.
• Eat soy foods. Compounds found in soy foods inhibit the development of small blood vessels that provide tumors with oxygen and nutrients, increase apoptosis (the death of cancer cells) and help break down potential cancer-causing substances in the body. Eat four ounces of soy foods daily, preferably the more traditional forms such as tempeh, tofu, miso and edamame, instead of such highly processed soy products as soy cheese or prepared soy desserts.
• Drink tea. Tea — both black and green varieties — contains antioxidant compounds called polyphenols, which prevent damage to DNA.
Fruits, Vegetables and Herbs: Allies Against Cancer
Consuming an abundance of fresh fruits and vegetables and including generous amounts of herbs in your diet are perhaps the most important dietary steps you can take to protect yourself from cancer.
Dozens of compounds in fruits, vegetables and herbs act in several ways to thwart cancer. Some inhibit the formation of cancer-causing chemicals. Others stimulate the production of enzymes (such as glutathione) that rid the body of cancer-causing substances. And some starve out potential tumors by blocking the growth of blood vessels that provide oxygen and nutrients to cancer cells.
For optimal nutritional protection, eat at least seven (preferably more) servings every day of a variety of fruits and vegetables, and season your meals liberally with an assortment of herbs. Include the following nutritional superstars often:
Tomatoes — as well as watermelons, red peppers and carrots — are rich in lycopene, a phytonutrient that lowers the risk of prostate cancer and other cancers.
Gobble garlic and onions.
Members of the allium family, including garlic, onions, scallions, leeks and chives, are rich in the antioxidant mineral selenium, enhance immune activity and bolster enzymes that break down carcinogens.
The antioxidant vitamin C, which helps prevent free radical damage, is one good reason to eat citrus fruits. Oranges, lemons and limes also contain a phytochemical called limonene, which increases enzymes that break down carcinogens.
Carotenoids are antioxidant compounds that neutralize free radicals, improve immune function and help reverse precancerous changes in cells. Good sources include deep-orange vegetables and fruits, such as carrots, sweet potatoes, winter squashes, cantaloupe and apricots; and dark-green vegetables such as broccoli, collards and kale.
Broccoli and its kin — cabbage, cauliflower, collards, bok choy, kale, mustard greens, watercress and Brussels sprouts — contain compounds called indoles that stimulate the production of enzymes that neutralize carcinogens and speed their removal from the body.
Spice up your meals.
Turmeric and ginger, both members of the Zingiberaceae family, help protect cells from oxidative damage and inhibit the inflammation that can initiate cancerous cell changes.
Relish grapes and berries.
Grapes, strawberries, raspberries and apples are excellent sources of ellagic acid, a phytochemical that inhibits the enzymes that fuel cancer growth.
Season with herbs.
Herbs contain a staggering array of protective compounds that are potent antioxidants and inhibit tumor growth. Some of the most powerful are those in the Lamiaceae family (basil, mint, oregano, rosemary, sage and thyme) and those in the Apiaceae family (caraway, cilantro, coriander, cumin, dill, fennel and parsley).
Medicinal Mushrooms: Powerful Immune Enhancers
Medicinal mushrooms are rich sources of beta glucans, naturally occurring complex sugars that have been shown to stimulate immune function and kill cancer cells.
Maitake (Grifola frondosa) activates various cells of the immune system, including those that directly inhibit cancer cells. It’s sold fresh or dried in gourmet and Oriental markets; it’s also available in supplement form. Eat maitake a couple of times a week in soups, stir-fries or pasta dishes; for supplements, follow the package directions.
Shiitake (Lentinula edodes) strengthens immune function, including increasing the production of interferon and other important immune compounds. You can find fresh or dried shiitake in many supermarkets; add the mushrooms to soups, scrambles, stir-fries and pasta dishes. For immune enhancement, eat a few shiitakes at least twice weekly.
Reishi (Ganoderma lucidum) enhances overall immune function and inhibits the growth of tumors. The mushrooms are woody and bitter (thus inedible) but are widely available as a tea, in capsules or as a liquid extract. Follow the directions on the package label.
Laurel Vukovic writes and teaches about herbs and natural healing from her home in southern Oregon. She is the author of 14-Day Herbal Cleansing (Prentice Hall, 1998) and Herbal Healing Secrets for Women (Prentice Hall, 2000).