Over the years, we have each heard hundreds of examples of items which may cause cancer. As February is National Cancer Prevention Month, it seems a fitting time to highlight what we know about cancer prevention, as well as focus on an example about diet and its relationship to cancer.
Cancer prevention is a complicated subject. There are many things we can do to considerably lower our risk of a cancer diagnosis. Cancer prevention can teach us the things within our control that lower the incidence of cancer. It does not mean that those with cancer somehow did not do enough to prevent it. Nothing could be further from the truth. No one asks for cancer.
Cancer is caused by abnormalities in a cell's DNA (its genetic "blueprint"). These may be inherited from parents (genetics), or they may be caused by exposures to the body that we can minimize—carcinogens, such as tobacco, chemicals, radiation (like sun exposure) or infectious agents (viruses).
An article on cancer prevention would be incomplete without these truths—stop using tobacco; eat lots of fruit, vegetables and whole grains; exercise regularly; maintain a healthy body weight; and use protection against the sun.
Simple? Not in the least. A look at the incidence of obesity in our country suggests that we will not be successful in our battle against unhealthy weight gain and our need to increase exercise unless we have complex personal, societal and marketplace changes. The American Cancer Society (ACS) reports in 2005 that one-third of the 550,000 cancer deaths were attributed to diet and sedentary lifestyle.
There has been scientifically validated evidence that diet is linked to cancer. So, what about the reports that regularly eating french fries and meat cooked on a charcoal grill will increase your risk for cancer?
In 2002, Swedish researches identified acrylamide in starchy foods (like potatoes) when they were fried. Acrylamide in high doses in a laboratory setting causes cancer in rats. Here's the tricky part—there has been no proof that acrylamide is a human carcinogen. So, scientists agree that more research is needed.
When it comes to grilled red meat or chicken, it has been found that well-done and burnt meat create worrisome chemicals called heterocyclic amines (HA's). Here too, HA's in high doses have been shown to cause cancer in rats, but not in humans.
Some might conclude that these examples support that "scientists don't really know" what causes cancer, so they may as well eat and do what they like. This would be a dangerous dismissal of the facts.
So, what's a body to do? When thinking of your own quest in minimizing cancer risks, continue to focus on what we do know.
Even if acrylamide and HA's have not been proven to increase cancer risk in humans, we do know that a diet high in saturated fats is hard on our hearts. We also know that those of us who gain weight around our middles are at increased risk of heart disease, colon cancer and, for postmenopausal women, breast cancer. We do know that tobacco causes 80 percent of lung cancers and head and neck cancers. We do know that severe sunburns in early life increase the risk of skin cancer. We know we can minimize these risks. Each of us deserves to live the healthiest life possible.
Aileen Schulman Galley is the Administrative Director of the Penn State Cancer Institute at Mount Nittany Medical Center.