Five Health Promoting Tips for Making Anti-Cancer Choices

What I wish you heard about food choices from your oncologist...


I remember participating in a conference about ten years ago that was held to help people who had been touched by GI cancer. I was there to speak about sexuality concerns. The keynote speaker was a lively young gastroenterologist who pleaded with the group to introduce more cooking at home… with their grandchildren, their children and their friends. He spoke of increasing trends of GI cancers related to dietary choices (primarily the huge amount of fast food being consumed) and empowered the audience to change the predictions and help their younger family members. The prediction for the rise in GI malignancies is especially scary for the young adult population. For the 20-34 year old age range predictions for colorectal cancers are for an increase of 37.8% by 2020 and 90% by 2030. Food choices impacting our health are rarely discussed as part of the armamentarium of fighting cancer during medical visits. Yet we know that food choices can greatly influence your “personal environment” or your “oncometabolic milieu” or your “terrain” helping your body to be a less favorable host for tumor growth and progression!

So what if your oncologist did say, “We use chemotherapy, surgery and radiation to kill the cancer cells in your body and now we are going to talk about how to build up your body to make it unfavorable to the tumor environment. We also know that food choices can influence your genes so we will address that too." Interested?? Want more information?? Feeling confused by ALL the nutritional information and often times conflicting nutritional information out there?? Not clear about what is right for you? You are not alone. AND the answer may differ for each and every one of you!! 

Before I mention some food for thought, I want to say this is not about being “the food police” or dictating what you should and should not be eating. One of my favorite things about teaching the class series Cancer Transitions™ was the opportunity to introduce participants to new foods and new thoughts about foods in addition to cooking colorful, mouth watering delicious food that improved their oncometabolic milieu. Food should be good… and fun… delicious… and healthy. As summer arrives and the bounty of the season is at hand, I encourage you to start where you are without judgement and to consider your healing and fortifying food choices. Revel in the colors of summer with reds and oranges and greens, blues and yellows!

1) You can be your own “epigenetic engineer”!

Did you know that the foods you choose have the power to switch genes on and off? Remember an apple a day keeps the doctor away? Guess what? Apples contain a substance called quercetin (a flavonoid) that actually inhibits the growth of cancer cells in lung, breast, prostate and liver cancers. The foods we eat can foster an anti-cancer environment or an environment that is more permissible to promoting cancer. Some of the environments that are considered cancer promoting include diets that increase inflammation (think processed foods like white flour and white sugar and fast foods) and insulin resistance (think weight higher than you would like or that is ideal, thicker midsection and high triglycerides). The foods we eat can also improve or lower our immune function. Inflammation, insulin resistance and poor immune functioning all create an internal environment that makes it more difficult for your body to fight off infection and disease, including cancer. Additionally, research by Dean Ornish MD demonstrated that after a life-style intervention lasting 3 months, men being followed with active surveillance for prostate cancer had longer telomeres 5 years later!

You can also aid your engineering with the use of herbs and spices. These may be new to some of you. They are fantastic compliments to your food and to your desire to create an anti-cancer terrain. Spices are known to assist with decreasing inflammation, insulin resistance and for inhibiting expression NF-kB or nuclear factor kappa-light-chain-enhancer of activated B cells. This is a protein complex that controls transcription of DNA, cytokine production and cell survival. When the regulation of NF-κB is incorrect your “terrain” may favor the promotion of cancer and inflammation. Are you unfamiliar with cooking with spices? Start with something you know (like parsley or cilantro-power houses of vitamins, minerals and flavonoids) and add to salads, salsas and cooked dishes. Or go on and explore something else like rosemary, turmeric or ginger. One summer I decided to choose 3 spices to get to know them better and tried to use them frequently throughout the week. This lesson gave me the confidence to be more familiar with their many uses as well as confidence in the next group of spices to discover. Research has demonstrated the power of phytochemicals found in foods, herbs and spices to work against cancer stem cells too.

Want to know what you can do to improve your body’s cancer fighting and health promoting potential? Choosing foods that taste good AND are good for you can help your oncometabolic milieu. Yes, become your own epigenetic engineer!!

2) Don’t hesitate to request information specifically for your type of cancer and your particular concerns. 

Fortunately there has been an explosion of research published in the area of nutritional oncology. Unfortunately this may not be an area of expertise of your medical team. Unfortunately there is a lot of information out there about what you should do or shouldn’t do about cancer that is not always helpful to you as an individual. Research in several areas of oncology nutrition addresses specific interventions related to improved outcomes but each person’s individual factors also need to be assessed. ONE DIET DOES NOT FIT ALL! For example, someone who has had a GI malignancy and an ostomy or someone with a head and neck cancer may have VERY different needs than someone who has had a cancer not directly impacting the digestive system. Do ask your oncology provider if there is a nutritionist or oncology dietician at your treatment center or in the community. You may benefit from a post-treatment consultation. There are different levels of support that can be helpful depending on where you would like to start. Need basic nutritional information or wanting a full assessment, including lab testing, for determining your “terrain” or body environment? Want some guidance about what the research supports at this time? Don’t know where to begin? Feel free to contact me for some assistance and support on where to start.

3) “Eat Food. Not too much. Mostly Plants.” (Michael Pollan)

THINK real food. You know that stuff that grows in the ground and on trees! Summer especially is a time to delight in the bounty of the season with fresh fruits and vegetables. One thing I encourage you to think about is to begin to look at labels on foods you commonly eat. Surprisingly, many “foods” we have available are filled with substances that are not foods.  Are there more than five ingredients that you have no idea what they are? How about how much sugar is in that food? Sugar can be listed on an ingredient panel as sugar, fructose, corn starch, corn syrup,dextrin, dextrose, glucose, lactose and maltodextrin to name just a few!! Eating foods that are naturally sweet like the deliciousness of a sweet, juicy perfectly ripe summer peach is a great option. One of the challenges about refined sugars is the more we eat the more we tend to want… yes, sort of addictive. 

Some of you may be interested in the exciting research related to periodic fasting and health benefits. Periodic fasting includes not consuming foods for several hours at a time, for example for a set number of hours during your day or for several days of the month decreasing your calorie intake.  Recent research by Brandhorst and colleagues develop a fasting mimicking diet (FMD) protocol, which retained the health benefits associated with prolonged fasting. This FMD diet improved metabolism and cognitive function, decreased bone loss and cancer incidence, and extended longevity in mice. In humans, three monthly cycles of a 5-day FMD reduced multiple risk factors of aging. However, this is another area that involves dedicated thought and decision making about what works best for you as well as consultation with a health professional. 

Once again, think about eating real food and mostly plants. For some of you it may also mean trying to eat a little less. However, if you are eating calorie dense foods or foods with not much nutritional benefit it may mean changing what you eat and getting to consume a bit more!

4) Consider becoming nutritionally literate and even a nutritional analysis

Do you know about the basic building blocks of food-Proteins, carbohydrates and fats? Do you have a basic understanding of the vitamins and minerals that help your body thrive? Just like building a healthy garden, we can nurture our body with food choices helping it function at it’s most optimal level. Starting where you are is the first step. I will always remember a lovely gentleman, a recently retired school teacher, that was in a group I conducted who was an inspiration to all. He was single and for most of his adult life had eaten out. After being diagnosed with prostate cancer he decided to learn more about his food choices and even how to cook! He had a great time talking to the people at the farmer’s market and people in the store who were buying similar items to ask them how they prepared the foods. He acknowledged having to learn about which pans to use for a start! You may be feeling very challenged by where to start once you have decided to make some changes toward optimizing your health. Maybe it is getting a fun and beautiful cookbook or taking a class. There may be some lab test that help you to understand where you to start. For example, if your immune system is a still out of whack your doctor can explain that by your blood test. You can also have a blood test for vitamin D levels which recently have been linked with both mood and cancer incidence. Inflammatory markers and glucose levels are other blood test that you may have had recently or can discuss with your health care provider. Food choices can most definitely impact your mood, how you sleep, your energy, your ability to fight infection, your inflammatory profile and longevity. PLEASE do consider bringing your curiosity and sense of adventure!

5) Community

For some cooking is a drag. For others it is just too time consuming. Others of you might not know where to start with pots and pans. Still to be learned is how to choose fruits and vegetables as well as dairy and meat and fish products that are the best to choose for optimizing your health. Given our very busy lives it is understandable that the time needed to learn about improving your nutritional choices and then creating dishes that delight you is hard!! I would like to encourage you to think about optimizing your health from the standpoint of your community.  Will others in your household benefit from improving food choices? For example do you want to promote the health of children and grandchildren or your spouse or your group of friends? Maybe it is a group of folks from your church or some other moms or dads who prepare meals for the family. Can you involve them in the project of learning together or even cooking together? I still remember cooking with my grandmother as a very young child and know that in part my love of foods was because she made it all so magical. Maybe it is getting a group of girlfriends together one evening or one Sunday to cut up vegetables to use through the week so you have food ready to go? Or maybe it is a once a month extravaganza and you get together with friends and make a few soups to share. Find a cooking class at a local school, store, farmer’s market or doctor’s office and go with a friend. Consider eating with a friend or a group more often if you currently eat frequently alone. Savoring our food and the people we are enjoying our food with is part of the magic of a good meal. Enjoy!

Guess you can tell I am on the passionate side of this discussion! I wish for you food that is flavorful, beautiful, colorful and fun. Delight in the wonder of all that we have access too in terms of food choices and make yours count.

If you would like some help getting started or taking the next step toward discovering and using healthy food as part of your cancer fighting tool box feel free to contact me.

Wishing you health and happiness,