You have seen the headlines, you have heard the TV reporters. “X and Y found to cause cancer!” and ” Z found to fight cancer.” You will read on and direct your attention so that you can know what to avoid or what to take. More often that not, you will leave that article or that report less than satisfied. “Wait. So am I supposed to eat more green vegetables or less? Will the pesticides get me before the anti-oxidants have had a chance to kick in?” There is some excellent evidence that certain things are absolutely to be avoided, that certain things are absolutely helpful and then, in the middle, there is this huge gray area. Gray is not my color. I am confused and the research changes constantly. I can’t keep up with the laundry; forget about the latest on carcinogens from the farmers, the pharmaceutical companies, the cancer centers and the government. I am attempting today to shed a little light on the good, the bad and the ugly. When I say little light, think the glow from your DVD player when it is off, relatively speaking. This topic is huge but I think worth introducing. Does where we live, what we do and what we eat put us at risk?
1. What we drink — “It must be something in the water.” Or is it something in the air? What is it about certain geographical locations that boast fewer cases of cancer? What is it about those that harbor higher incidence of certain types of cancer? Surprisingly, CT and RI have a higher incidence of skin cancer than TX which, for those of you who are geographically challenged, is closer to the equator. Breast cancer incidence is higher in Long Island, NY than in other parts of the US. It has been hypothesized that cancer clusters exist because the people in these locations share other characteristics, i.e. genetics, lifestyle, access to healthcare, etc. More and more, though, (and this is not meant to freak you out or make you paint “For Sale” on your front lawn) it seems that the air and the water are, at least in part, to blame. If you like challenging reading, check out this report by the Breast Cancer Fund. As a personal anecdote, my mom grew up in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, home of the infamous Greenpoint Oil Spill. Decades ago, somewhere between 17 and 30 million gallons of oil spilled and seeped into (and consequently out of) the soil in Brooklyn. There has been a higher incidence of cancer in people who lived there at that time. Coincidence? I don’t know but I’d like to. .
2. What we eat – undoubtably, a healthy diet is, well, umm … healthy. Obesity has been linked to many cancers. Fatty foods, processed foods and red meat are definitely bad. Hormones and pesticides – the jury is still out but likely, and somewhat obviously, not good. What about the claims that certain foods are actually preventative? Again, the evidence is not great in human studies, but in the lab, many foods are showing promise for cancer prevention. Anti-oxidants seem to be definitely good. They stabilize the highly reactive molecules called free radicals. Free radicals are produced normally but are produced in higher numbers when cells are damaged from pollution, tobacco smoke or radiation. Anti-oxidants are found in phytochemicals in most plants and there is some decent evidence that you don’t have to overdo it with supplements. Eating a variety (variety, by the way, seems to be key) of fruits and vegetables is protective. Omega-3 fats are extremely promising for cancer prevention. They are found in flax seed, fish oils, nuts, vegetables and some other foods. Bottom line – load up on the fruits, vegetables and fiber throwing in a little flax seed oil for good measure.
3. What we love – it occurs to me that one of my favorite pastimes, sitting on the couch watching The Good Wife and drinking wine is not good for me — talk about your royal buzz-kill. Although it pains me to say it, drinking in moderation (as defined by experts not alcoholics) is o.k. but any more puts you at increased risk for cancer. The same goes for being lazy. Exercise is definitely preventative. Oh, and if you are still smoking in 2010 and you don’t have a death wish, you are an idiot.
4. What our DNA says – if you know that you have a strong family history of a certain type of cancer, talk to your doctor and find out what you can be doing to reduce your risk. As an example, if you have a strong family history of breast or ovarian cancer, you can be tested for BRCA-1 or 2. Of course, you have to be prepared to live with a positive result and face some very difficult decisions. For some people, that is better than living in fear or denial. If you have a strong family history of colon cancer, you can get earlier and more frequent screenings and you can take some proactive steps such as changing your diet and getting more exercise.
5. What the hell? – sometimes you can do everything right and still get cancer. I’m sorry. I don’t know if this is better because you had done all you could do or worse because you could’ve been having more fun. Hopefully, scientists will continue to identify dangerous carcinogens and the number of people who get cancer with no obvious cause will decrease. Hopefully, we will clean up our environment and our food and give the next generation a better shot. There is promising research in the pipeline. I’m saving that for Friday so I can enter the weekend on a high. I am going to need some kind of high if I am going to feel all this guilt about my vices!