Why Eat Well?

 

In light of the recent news I’ve shared about Annette, it feels a bit odd to jump back into discussing leafy greens and quinoa (or any other health-promoting food stuff) in my next blog post. And this is probably why it’s been a few weeks since I’ve posted. I’ve had a tough time trying to figure out what to say! Annette is, after all, not only my coauthor, but also a dear, dear friend.

I was asked in an interview last night on Because Hope Matters Radio (listen to the interview here) a little about how Annette’s cancer recurrence has affected us in terms of our message and support we offer through Kicking Cancer in the Kitchen and here, on our website. In other words (and this is MY own words, not how this was asked on the radio show!) what does it mean if Annette, someone who promotes eating well to fight cancer and is so healthy herself, gets cancer again? Perhaps others wonder this as well.

Unfortunately, I don’t have an answer. At least, not a simple one.

Annette has led a beautifully healthy lifestyle – diet, exercise, etc. – over the last several years since her first cancer diagnosis. [You can read about Annette’s and my cancer stories in detail in our book, but long story short – Annette was diagnosed with breast cancer and found she has the BRCA1 genetic mutation, which increases her risk for certain cancers. She was diagnosed with ovarian cancer two years after her breast cancer diagnosis. She had treatment for both. A few years later (now) – ovarian cancer recurrence.]

Many studies have shown that a plant-focused diet reduces cancer mortality rates and that vegetarians live longer and have lower cancer rates [1], that lifestyle changes can actually turn cancer genes on and off [2], and that chemicals in plants protect against cancer in many ways [3]. Studies have also shown that a healthy diet helps to prevent late effects (a late effect is a health problem that occurs months or years after a disease is diagnosed or after treatment has ended. It’s caused by cancer or cancer treatment). [4] Most experts agree that some form of a plant-focused diet this is an optimal way to eat! And it is.

Eating a whole-food, plant-based diet improves quality of life on many levels, with or without cancer. This, in my opinion, is reason alone to eat in such a way. You just feel good – great, actually. Generally, you have more energy, better moods, feel stronger, and have fewer health problems. If a person is going through cancer treatment, it’s very likely that he or she would feel far better than he/she would have if eating a poor, processed, high-sugar diet. If a person who isn’t facing cancer eats a more health-sustaining diet, he/she will likely feel better. That seems logical, right?

A plant-based, whole-food diet also supports your body on many levels – immune system, digestion, blood health, heart health, mental clarity, bones, tissues, organs. The food we eat becomes us, plain and simple.

What isn’t quite so plain and simple is the formation of disease, or the environment in which disease thrives, at least not specifically. There are so many beliefs and theories, some evidence-based, some partially, and some are simply opinions. Believe me, I’ve read it all (how many of these have you heard about?) – pH levels in the body, inflammation, toxin overload, digestive health affects immunity, conventional treatment (like chemotherapy) creates a cancer-friendly environment in the body, the affects of stress, how mindset affects disease and health…and on and on. Much of this is quite credible, and more than likely, it’s a combination of several of these causes in relation to food, environment, stress management and genetics.

Along these lines, I remember reading once, “A person isn’t sick because he/she has cancer. He/she has cancer because she is sick.” I don’t remember the source – let me know if you know it! In any case, that’s an interesting way to think about it.

These are all, perhaps, pieces of the puzzle, but still not the whole thing. I’m not sure we will ever have that exact answer because every person and every cancer is so unique in many ways.

I’ve met people who healed from cancer on dietary and lifestyle improvements alone.

And there is Annette, and others like her, who have built amazing, healthy lives, yet cancer just persists. Is it genetics? Something else? A combination of many different factors? We may never know that answer, definitively.

What I do know is that neither Annette nor I have changed our minds and decided to say, “Oh forget about food. I’m going to just start eating all the sugary sweets, fried foods, fast food, processed, artificial foods I want. It just doesn’t matter.” (Ok, I’ll be honest, there have been moments that we’ve considered this. I even joked with Annette that our next book should be Screw the Kitchen. But that was also in response to some of the difficulties she’s had with eating anything with this recurrence. Cancer sucks. It makes us angry. But we also need to find some humor in things, don’t you think?)

While neither one of us has made our diets so strict that we can’t enjoy ourselves – and we’ve always allowed guilty pleasures without the guilt! – we still know that we feel our best and that our bodies thrive much more when eating well. With cancer or without. And if food is what builds and supports our bodies, and eating well makes us feel good, why would we have it any other way?

 

 

[1] National Institutes of Health, Vegetarian Diets linked to Lower Mortality, 2013

[2] In the foreword of our book, Kicking Cancer in the Kitchen, David Katz, MD mentions that diseases are effects, not causes. Causes of what? According to a paper published in the Journal of the American Medial Association all the way back in 1993, Dr. Katz says “Premature death and chronic disease are attributable to just 10 behaviors each of us has the capacity to control…much dominated by tobacco use, dietary pattern and physical activity level.” This same information was reevaluated and published again in 2004.

Another study Dr. Katz addresses was reported in 2008 in the Proceedings od the National Academy of Sciences: It measured the effects of intervention on genes through a whole food plant-based diet, physical activity, psychosocial support and stress management. What was found? These factors had the ability to turn on 50 cancer suppressor genes and around 500 cancer promoter genes became less active.

[3] Cancer.net, Plant-based Foods 2/2012, approved by American Society of Clinical Oncology

[4] National Cancer Institute

 

 

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.