Eat a rainbow of fruits and vegetables to equip the body’s best defenses.
The word cancer invokes fear and anxiety in most people just by the mere mention of it. This is rightfully so. Why? Because cancer can affect so many organs in the body and wreak havoc to the cells in which it comes in contact.
Cancer most commonly affects the lungs, breast, prostate, uterus and colon. However, it can affect any part of the body including the brain, bone, skin, ovaries, blood and pancreas. Since October is breast cancer awareness month, I thought it fitting to write about it.
My mother’s sister died with this disease 40 years ago. I remember my parents talking about it and how much weight she lost due to her illness. It was definitely a death sentence back then. Nowadays, though breast cancer is still very serious, it is no longer the death sentence it once was when it is detected early.
Breast cancer can remain local as in “in situ” or it can be widespread as in metastatic disease. Early detection is key for the best outcome.
What exactly is cancer of the breast? Cancer is a term used to describe the class of diseases that is characterized by abnormal cell growth with subsequent invasion into the surrounding healthy cells of the body. Breast cancer begins in the breast tissue (in situ), can invade the surrounding tissue, and also spread to other parts of the body. We call this invasion “metastasis”.
According to the National Breast Cancer Foundation, one in eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime. That is huge! Just think, if you are in the room with 8 women, one of them will have this diagnosis at some point in their life. It is actually the second leading cause of death in women, second only to cardiovascular disease. To make matters worse, it not only affects women, but approximately 1% of men will develop the disease as well. This translates to about 2,200 men with the disease resulting in about 400 deaths from it annually. It is not just a woman’s disease.
Breast cancer is the most common cancer in women world-wide according to the World Health Organization. The numbers are staggering. There are certain risk factors that increase the risk that a person would develop the disease. Some of the risk factors are what we call “non-modifiable” and others are what we call “modifiable”. I have included a list of both.
Unmodifiable Risk Factors for Breast Cancer
1. Female gender
2. Age ( 2/3 of women are diagnosed after age 55)
3. Race (more common in caucasian women)
4. Family history and genetic factors
5. A past history of breast cancer
6. Menstruation before age 12 or stopping after age 55. It is also more common in women who have never had children
7. Gene mutations such as BRCA1 and BRCA2 which can be passed on to children
8. Dense breast tissue
Modifiable Risk Factors for Breast Cancer
1. A diet high in saturated fat and low in fruits and vegetables
3. Alcohol consumption
4. Sedentary lifestyle
5. Radiation to the chest before age 30
6. Taking combined hormone replacement therapy (HRT)
9. Toxic exposures
Interestingly, cancer cells don’t just grow without being acted upon even if non-modifiable risk factors are present. The DNA or the information center of the cell must be damaged by free radicals. This damage will then allow the genes to “turn on” or become expressed when they would otherwise remain silent. It’s like having a great pair of designer jeans from Nordstrom and a not-so-great pair of jeans from Walmart. If the the designer jeans are treated poorly they will be put out of commission far sooner than the Walmart jeans that were treated superbly. In the trash they go.
Fortunately, there is something that we can do about turning on and turning off these gene expressions for the most part. We will, unfortunately, always be subjected to toxins that damage the DNA of our cells by producing free radicals. These toxins will come at us from all directions like any of the modifiable risk factors mentioned above. We even experience toxins in the air we breath and even though exercise is good for us, it too produces toxins as an end product. But, we can target the free radicals.
Free radicals occur, as mentioned earlier, from even the blessing of the air we breath. It becomes a curse when it undergoes oxidative stress. When we breathe in the oxygen as O2 it collides with other cells of the body and becomes a “reactive” species. As such, the oxygen becomes O1. Now it is a single molecule and needs to have another species to react with to be stable. Fortunately and unfortunately, for reasons beyond the scope of this article, the way it does this is by taking it away from other stable molecules. This can be a normal process when it operates within the realms of the normal biologic systems. This is the body’s way of detoxifying. However, when the system is overwhelmed from too many toxins at one time, the system experiences oxidative stress.
This is similar to what you feel when you are stressed. When this happens, the normal biologic system is taxed and the reactive intermediates begin to damage all parts of the cell. It is this damage that causes the formation of disease. In humans, oxidative stress will manifest in most of the diseases you can think of including Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, Heart Attacks, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and even Breast Cancer.
By including foods from the different color groups, we benefit from the incredible phyto kingdom of nutrition that protect against disease and promote health.
What, then, can we do? It comes right back down to the basics. We must do things to repair free radicals. We do this by incorporating antioxidants into our bodies to assist in the detoxification process that is going on even now as you read this article. The idea is to allow the antioxidants to scavenge the free radicals to repair the damage that the oxidation process causes.
How do we do this? The National Cancer Institute recommends 5-9 servings of fruits and vegetables everyday to fight toxins and promote health. Here are a few that are helpful for breast cancer. These foods contain high amounts of phytochemicals that are powerful against disease. These phytochemical are substances only found in plants.
1. Red fruits and vegetables such as strawberries, raspberries and beets contain incredible phytochemicals called anthocyanin that are important antioxidants to capture free radicals before they damage the DNA.
2. Purple fruits and vegetables includes anthocyanins, but also includes phenolics are also very powerful antioxidants.
3. Greens should definitely be enjoyed daily because they are overstuffed with phytochemicals and indoles particularly in the cruciferous vegetables like cauliflower, cabbage and brussels sprouts that protect against breast cancer.
4. The deep orange and bright yellow fruits and vegetables such as carrots, sweet potatoes and oranges and mangos have beta carotene and bioflavonoids, antioxidants that work together with vitamin C to reduce the risk of cancer.
5. White vegetables including garlic, onions and leeks share the most important phytochemical in this family to date. It is called allicin and it helps to lower cholesterol, which is good for the heart and crucial in maintaining circulation to bring those fabulous antioxidants to the site of compromise while blocking toxins.
Nutrition research is again proving what we already know from the original biblical diet: plant foods are powerful foods that lower our risk of cancer and protect against the toxic pollution we face daily. Because there are thousands of healthy phytochemicals in plants, it is important to eat a wide variety of colorful fruits and vegetables that are red, orange, green, white and blue daily. By including foods from the different color groups, we benefit from the incredible phyto kingdom of nutrition that protect against disease and promote health. Women should enjoy at least 7 servings daily to have the protection needed to fight disease.