Sunday, March 2, 2008

What are the choices?

First let's look at the choices open to you, which also happen to reflect three different 'schools of thought' on the subject of diet and cancer:

The first choice is to carry on as before, on the grounds that there is still controversy over the extent to which diet is involved in cancer development, that the changes you would have to make are huge and unacceptable, that success is not guaranteed and that in any case there is a large element of individual susceptibility.

Next, there is the stance of the 'activists' who believe that the evidence available is very convincing, that major changes are needed and that they can be put into practice. If you take this approach, you will find a good deal of support in the marketplace, since food products with a low energy or fat content and/or which are high in fibre are becoming more readily available.

Many in this activist group take the holistic approach to avoiding disease, in other words, they believe that we should improve our diets so as to protect ourselves against all diet-related 'killers', not only cancer. Sir Richard Doll, a well-known British medical statistician, expressed this attitude in his 1982 Harveian Oration in London on 'Prospects for Prevention', when he urged:

'...whether the object is to avoid cancer, coronary heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, diverticulitis, duodenal ulcer or constipation ... the type of diet least likely to cause disease is one that provides a high proportion of calories in whole grain cereals, vegetables and fruit; provides most of its animal protein in fish and poultry; limits the intake of fats and if oils are to be used, gives preference to liquid vegetable oils; includes very little dairy produce, eggs and refined sugar; and is sufficiently restricted in amounts not to cause obesity'.

Diet Start

The third group recognizes the truth of the evidence put forward and accepts that dietary changes are required. But their view is that what is needed is simply to eat less and to practice moderation, even to the extent of cutting out alcohol and rich foods. This was the attitude taken by Hippocrates, Galen, Moses Maimonides and numerous other great physician-philosophers of the past.

The bottom line

Firstly, in spite of what might be regarded as a pessimistic tone to this chapter, it must be emphasised that what has been given here is an overview. The results of research may certainly give the experts good cause to be pessimistic - but remember that they deal in statistics. As in so many areas of life, if you as an individual are motivated enough to make the necessary changes, you can make the difference - to yourself and possibly to your family. In fact, considering the wealth of information now available, the prospect of taking individual avoiding action has never been better!

A diet which supplies 25% of energy from fat, and which contains 30g of fibre on a daily basis can certainly be formulated and could, with determined effort, become your personal norm. To do this you will probably have to eat far more of cereal products (which include whole grain breads, unrefined rice and breakfast cereals) and increase your vegetable and fruit intake considerably. You may also have to combat conservatism, inertia and lack of conviction and get used to a 'less palatable' diet - at least until you begin to enjoy foods that are closer to the way nature intended them to be!

It is important to realise that our eating habits are just that - habits - which we have learned and are capable of 'unlearning' if necessary. We don't come into the world craving over-refined breads, fried foods or creamy desserts; our tastes are developed from an early age in our own homes (which is why parents have a particularly important responsibility to guide the development of those tastes). A child who is regularly given white bread sandwiches and sweets for school lunches will probably always regard wholewheat bread and fresh fruit as hard work - yet getting into the habit of eating these and other unrefined foods will undoubtedly put him or her on a healthier nutritional path for life.

In conclusion, the take-home anti-cancer message could be reduced to simply this:

'Stop smoking; eat moderately; eat plenty of plant foods; and seek medical help early'.

Points to ponder

  • Recently, there have been major reductions in the occurrence of a number of common diseases, including strokes and coronary heart disease. The full reasons are not known. Hence, it is conceivable that decreases could occur in some cancers, again for reasons not altogether understood. For example, there has already been a major fall in stomach cancer and in some childhood cancers.
  • Individuals differ tremendously in their susceptibility to diseases. Obviously, if a parent had colon cancer, or a mother or sister had breast cancer, then the chances of getting such cancers are increased. However, because of differences in the ways people respond to cancer-producing substances, protection against the disease may not require too much avoiding action by a section of the community. This means that even partial reduction in the risk factors mentioned could put some people in a less vulnerable position.
  • The dietary and non-dietary measures for the avoidance of cancer are exactly the same as those urged for the avoidance of coronary heart disease and other important diseases. So by following a low fat, high fibre diet you will in any case be protecting yourself against other 'killer' diseases.
  • The field of alternative medicine may well produce some useful guidelines for fighting cancer in the future. Already the question is being asked: Are there 'non-orthodox' methods to prevent cancer, or to treat it, or even to cure it? Some interesting recommendations have been made, for example in the diets put forward by Kelley, by Gerson and by Forbes. These diets are largely or wholly vegetarian, with much of the plant food being eaten raw. There are encouraging case- histories which record the arrest and even regression of tumours, but none of the programmes described have been subjected to any form of controlled trial. At present enormous amounts of money are spent on trials in the treatment of various diseases, especially coronary heart disease. Perhaps some money should be devoted to investigating cases of possible 'alternative' cures for cancer. Even the validation of a small number of individual cases would be of great value, bearing in mind the formidable nature of the disease.

... andjoyohoxing