(November 2012) More than a million Americans and >10 million people worldwide will be diagnosed with cancer this year. However, no more than 10% of cases are attributable to genetic defects. Over 90% have their roots in environmental and lifestyle factors, such as cigarette smoking, diet, alcohol, excessive sun exposure, pollutants, infections, stress and obesity. Nearly 30% are due to tobacco, at least 35% to diet, roughly 20% to chronic infection, and the rest to factors like radiation, stress, physical inactivity, environmental toxins, etc. Cancer prevention entails quitting smoking, increasing fruit and vegetable intake, moderating alcohol use, restricting calories (especially from processed and overcooked foods), exercise, avoiding sunburn, minimizing factory farm meat consumption, increasing the use of fresh herbs, spices and anti-inflammatory foods, and taking high quality dietary supplements/antioxidants.
I would be remiss not to emphasize the importance of a low-carbohydrate diet in the prevention and treatment of cancer. Consider that cancer cells feed preferentially on sugar. Recently, a high-carb diet was associated with recurrence of colon cancer. The connection is especially strong in patients who are overweight or obese. High blood sugar and insulin levels increase inflammation and cancer spread, while low-carb diets produce ketones that suppress cancer growth. The trick is to replace carbs with fruits, veggies, high-quality protein and healthy organic fats. Adding anti-cancer foods to the diet is also wise, especially for cancer survivors. Foods such as green tea, turmeric, ginger, omega-3 rich fatty fish (salmon, sardines, mackerel, etc.), cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage), herbs (thyme, rosemary, mint, basil, sage, oregano), berries, and even a little bit of red wine and dark chocolate all have antioxidative and anti-inflammatory benefits.
Even after receiving the bad news that you have cancer, there is much you can do to increase survival. High on that list is to keep tumors from spreading to other body sites. Most cancer patients don’t succumb to a localized tumor, but rather to metastatic tumors, or to side effects of treatment. For example, melanoma accounts for only 4% of skin cancers, but is responsible for 80% of deaths from skin cancer, due to its propensity to metastasize.
Unfortunately, there is still much we don’t know about how to keep cancer from spreading. Recently, a predictive test for the progression of skin cancer in patients was developed at UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas. Scientists implanted human melanoma cells from 20 cancer patients into immune-compromised mice. They found that the rate of cancer spread in mice correlated with clinical outcomes in patients. In other words, when the melanoma did not metastasize in the mice, it also did not metastasize in patients. This “xenograft” model should enable the study of mechanisms regulating metastasis and disease progression, and may lead to new prognostic markers and therapies.
This new animal model could also help explore the effects of certain nutrients on disease progression. Patients at an early stage of melanoma could be placed on single nutrients or multiple-nutrient formulas to assess their effects on metastasis. Monitoring the nutrition of patients who develop cancer could provide insight into cancer survival via this animal model.
Yet, we don’t need no stinkin’ animal model to know that good nutrition and dietary supplementation help prevent cancer, and its spread. Eating an abundance of fruits and vegetables is associated with reduced cancer rates. Optimum nutrition lessons the initiation and survival of genetic mutations. Certain nutrients can keep tumor cells from releasing into the blood stream, and can work to reduce tumor size. Metastasis is stimulated by inflammation, and could be stymied by anti-inflammatory nutrients, to include fish oil and vitamin D. Metastasis is also stimulated by stress, and many nutrients build resilience to stress, particularly the B and C complex vitamins. A host of nutrients are required for a healthy immune system, which destroys roaming tumor cells. Blood clots provide havens for tumor growth and are linked to tumor spread. Some nutrients like fish oil and vitamin E reduce blood clotting and thin the blood, and are much better and safer than drugs. Nutrients and other phytochemicals can intervene at all stages of cancer development, through a broad range of chemical mechanisms. Micronutrients can work in antioxidaton (beta-carotene, selenium, vitamin C and E), differentiation (vitamins A and D, calcium), and immunity (vitamins A and C, selenium, zinc). Dietary fiber and friendly gut bacteria also play vital roles in cancer prevention, largely by neutralizing toxins. But let’s not get off the subject, which is metastasis.
Sound nutrition can actually affect the rate of metastasis. Sulfur-containing compounds from garlic may inhibit the proliferation and migration of cancer cells, based on animal studies. Cumin spice has been shown to suppress metastasis in animal research models. Curcumin reduced the spread of breast cancer tumor cells to the lungs of mice, and inhibited metastasis in many types of cancer cells. People who eat turmeric frequently have lower rates of some cancers. Ditto for high-dose vitamin D, which can reduce the incidence of cancer by >70%. Phytonutrients from cruciferous vegetables, such as sulforaphane and DIM (diindolylmethane), can lower the invasive and metastatic potential of cancer cells. Researchers have identified components in pomegranate that inhibit the movement of cancer cells and weaken their attraction to chemical signals that promote metastasis to bone. Selenium promotes the production of glutathione, the most important antioxidant in the body. Copper, zinc and manganese help build enzymes like catalase and superoxide dismutase, which gobble up free radicals that damage DNA and cause cancer. Spices like rosemary help prevent cancer, both in the body and when frying foods. Vitamin K is a potent inhibitor of tumor colony formation. This is yet another reason not to use prescription blood thinners like Coumadin and warfarin, which interfere with vitamin K action. Natural anti-blood clotting nutrients include magnesium, vitamin E complex, garlic and omega-3 fatty acids. Olive leaf extract contains an anti-inflammatory substance called oleuropein that inhibits the production of protein-melting enzymes that cancer cells need to spread.
And, don’t worry so much about how these nutrients affect conventional drug therapy. Hundreds of peer-reviewed studies, including 50 human studies involving many thousands of patients, have consistently shown that non-prescription antioxidants and other nutrients do not interfere with therapeutic modalities for cancer. In contrast, they actually enhance the killing by cancer drugs, decrease their side effects, and protect normal tissue. In 15 human studies, 3,738 patients who took antioxidants and other nutrients actually showed increased survival.
Unfortunately, we’re not likely to see this new animal model being used for nutrients anytime soon. Treating disease with nutrients is a no-no, according to the FDA. The regulations state that a nutrient cannot claim drug-like qualities; it can only foster health. Most human clinical studies on nutrients enlist healthy subjects and exclude those with frank disease, to avoid problems with the Feds. Thus, the nutrition world is stuck between a rock and a hard place. It’s even difficult to talk about prevention, without the Feds shutting companies down, unless they have human clinical trials at their disposal. Clinical trials cost millions of dollars and are not often favorable to single nutrients. These obstacles will remain as long as medicine is more about the bottom line than about real health care.
Important Anti-Cancer Herbs & Spices (adapted from The Rockefeller University website)
- Aloe vera – shows powerful anti-inflammatory activity with topical or oral use
- Black Pepper – interferes with the development of cancerous cells
- Cordyceps – a mushroom that inhibits melanoma growth in mice
- Curcumin – in turmeric, curry and cumin; packs a mighty punch against many cancers
- Garlic – helps prevent many types of cancer, and retards metastasis
- Ginger – anti-inflammatory action prevents tumor formation and spread
- Green Tea – its potent EGCG extract is a highly protective antioxidant
- Holy Basil – a clinically proven cancer fighter found in Tulsi tea
- Luteolin – anti-inflammatory found in whole citrus fruit, chamomile, green pepper and thyme
- Mint – an anti-cancer (especially anti-breast cancer) herb
- Oregano – contains flavonoids to neutralize free radicals; antimicrobial
- Quercetin – an important antioxidant flavonoid found in apples, onions, etc.
- Rosemary – an anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidant and anti-cancer herb
- Sage – another cancer fighter with healing properties
- Tea Tree Oil – inhibits the in vitro growth of human melanoma cells; antimicrobial
Science Daily. Spread of Human Melanoma Cells in Mice Correlates With Clinical Outcomes in Patients. Nov 2012. http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/11/121107141110.htm?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+sciencedaily+%28ScienceDaily%3A+Latest+Science+News%29&utm_content=Google+Feedfetcher
Klement RJ, et al. Is there a role for carbohydrate restriction in the treatment and prevention of cancer? Nutrition & Metabolism 2011, 8:75
Zeligs MA. “All About Diindolylmethane” (http://www.dimfaq.com/index.htm)
Scoditti E, et al. Mediterannean diet polyphenols reduce inflammatory angiogenesis through MMP-9 and COX-2 inhibition in vascular endothelial cells: a potentially protective mechanism in atherosclerotic vascular disease and cancer. Arch Bichem Biophys 2012;527:81-9.