Previvors, Genetics and Food

“PREVIVOR” is a term used to describe those who have an increased risk for developing cancer due to close family history or due to certain genetic mutations, like mutations of the BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes (Annette carries the BRCA1 gene, which you’ll read about in her story in Kicking Cancer in the Kitchen), but who do not have a cancer diagnosis.

In 2007 Time magazine chose “previvor” as number three of the top buzzwords of the year, giving millions of people exposure to the term and bringing public attention to the issues that cancer previvors face. According to Facing Our Risk of Cancer Empowered (FORCE), a national nonprofit dedicated to improving the lives of individuals and families affected by hereditary breast and ovarian cancer, the previvor community has its own unique needs and concerns separate from the general population, but different from those already diagnosed with cancer.

If cancer runs in your family, or you are especially young when diagnosed, you may want to consider genetic testing. Genetic testing can help assess your potential risk for cancer and determine if you are a carrier of a genetic mutation that increases the likelihood of cancer development; it does not determine if you have cancer.

Genetic testing involves taking a sample of blood, a cheek swab or a tissue sample. It can be complex and so it is important to speak with a specialist in cancer genetics if you are concerned that cancer may run in your family or if you are interested in testing. An expert in cancer genetics can help explain the benefits and limitations of testing and determine whether or not genetic testing is appropriate and likely to give a person further information about his or her cancer risk.

Those who test positive for one or more of these genetic mutations, our previvor peeps, usually go through a range of emotions upon learning of their predisposition status. Some choose to have prophylactic surgery as a way to prevent cancer, while others choose to get screened more often. Each person must do what feels right for her, from whether or not to test, to how to deal with the results: It is a personal journey with no right and wrong answers.

And what about diet? Can what we eat have any effect on our genes? In quoting David Katz, MD, the amazing voice behind the foreword for our book: “We can, in fact, nurture nature.” He refers to a study in which 30 men with prostate cancer had major lifestyle and diet intervention – they ate a plant-based, whole food diet, included moderate activity and addressed stress management. Katz says they found “roughly 50 cancer suppressor genes became more active, and nearly 500 cancer promoter genes became less so. This, and other studies like it, go so far as to indicate that the long-standing debate over the relative power of nature versus nurture is something of a boondoggle, for there is no true dichotomy.” Amazing!

So while many factors contribute to cancer and our health, including genetic makeup, diet can indeed influence our health in one way or another. As we say, it may help a little, or it may help a lot, but food will make a difference.