Cancer, Your Body and Your Diet

By Arati Bhatia

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Using the Beneficial Effects of Food in Cancer

To all the beasts of the earth and all the birds in the sky and all the creatures that move along the ground—everything that has breath of life in it—I give every green plant for food. And so it was.

—Genesis 1: 29-30 (NIV)

The beneficial effects of food can be maximized by manipulating the contents of our diets. In other words, we can use nature to stabilize our bodies. Unlike genetic factors, diet is easily modifiable and can therefore alter the cancer risk. Foods can fight infections, improve immunity and elevate mood—doing it all naturally. A large amount of data has established that eating certain types of foods regularly may have a preventive role in cancer development.41 Second, once cancer has developed, it is possible that consuming these foods may help us recover from the disease as well as from the effects of treatment.


Foods to Boost the Immune System

For our fight against cancer, the immune system is vital. It’s efficient functioning determines the state of our health. It defends the body against pathogenic organisms like bacteria and viruses, and removes both dead and abnormal cells. Immune system dysfunction due to poor nutrition is associated with increased risk of infection. Simply put, proper nutrition gives fire power to the defending army—the immune system.

To slow or even stop the progress of cancer requires galvanizing the immune system. This will clear the inflammation and remove the mutated abnormal cells. If the cancer has established itself in the body and treatment is essential, the revitalization of the natural defence mechanism of the body becomes crucial to fight the cancer. A multi-pronged attack including the activated immune system, surgery, radiation and/or chemotherapy is most likely to beat the odds.

The immune system has two components: soluble antibodies and cellular components like lymphocytes and macrophages to fight infection and remove damaged tissue generated in the process. The tissues most exposed to pathogenic organisms are the skin and the intestine. These are the body’s natural barriers, separating us from the world of pathogens outside. Both these tissues are rich in immune cells which can further signal recruitment of other similar cells when the need arises.

These barriers are kept in perfect health by the food we eat. Supportive foods are vitamin A, B, E and C, and food containing fibre. Fibre in the food is fermented into SCFA in the large intestine. This nourishes the colonic mucosal lining, and adds bulk to the intestinal content, removing toxins and waste matter by ensuring complete evacuation. The body’s dietary requirement of fibre is 20–30 grams per day.

Foods rich in proteins, antioxidants, essential fatty acids, vitamins and minerals keep the immune system in perfect health. Eggs, fish, tofu, nuts, leeks and green vegetables provide the daily requirement of these essentials. Fruits and vegetables rich in antioxidants boost the immune system. On the other hand, processed foods and food contaminated by pesticides or toxic metals like lead and mercury are immuno-suppressive. Some food additives, particularly, emulsifiers like lecithin used to keep water and oil mixed in margarine, baked foods and ice cream, destroy vitamins like B1, C and E present in the food and depress immunity. Mono and di-glycerides used in peanut butter act similarly.

Link between Immunity and Depression

There is a link between neurotransmitters released in response to emotions and the activity of the immune system. Natural killer cells (NK cells) are lymphocytes that can directly destroy tumour cells, and are the first line of defence against cancer. They were found to be more active in women with breast cancer who could better face the disease psychologically than in those who sank into depression.45 In another study about women with ovarian cancer, it was found that those who felt loved and supported, with higher morale, had better functional NK cells, compared to those who felt depressed, alone and abandoned.46 There is truth in the expression that the battle against cancer, like all battles, is won and lost in the mind.

Methods of Cooking in the Fight Against Cancer

Cooking methods vary—some are healthier than others. Generally, slow cooking or cooking at lower temperatures is an ideal way to cook. Sound methods (requiring little to no extra oil or fat) include the following:

• baking and oven roasting;
• braising or browning ingredients first in a pan, then cooking covered with small quantities of liquid;
• steaming, which requires the ingredients to be placed in a perforated utensil over simmering water;
• sauté-ing or stir-frying which uses small amounts of oil while stirring constantly till the vegetables are cooked.

Cooking methods that should be avoided are broiling and grilling thin pieces of meat exposed to direct heat over a charcoal grill or direct flame. All high-temperature cooking produces chemicals like heterocyclic amines and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons that are known carcinogens. Microwave cooking in a microwave-safe dish involves rapid cooking at high temperatures—although it uses less oil, it is a questionable method because of the high temperatures attained.

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