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Five Things About Cancer We Didn't Know A Decade Ago

Kathleen Blanchard's picture

A new synopsis from top experts, presented by the American Institute of Cancer Research (AICR), highlights five things about cancer that have surfaced in the past decade. The role of nutrition, weight management, and increased awareness of the link between diet and cancer are perhaps the most significant findings from cancer researchers in the past ten years.

Fat Fuels Cancer

The AICR and the American Cancer Association now recommend maintaining a healthy weight as a major intervention for cancer prevention. Elisa V. Bandera, MD, PhD, Associate Professor of Epidemiology at The Cancer Institute of New Jersey UMDNJ-Robert Wood Johnson Medical School says obesity rates have escalated, making awareness of the link between excess body fat and cancer particularly important. Dr. Bandera also points out that now we know that childhood exposure, even before birth, “can have an impact on the risk of developing breast cancer later in life."

What happens after cancer?

Wendy Demark-Wahnefried, PhD, RD Professor of Behavioral Science at University of Texas' M. D. Anderson Cancer Center points out a new awareness of cancer survivors and the increased risk of recurrent cancer and poor health outcomes – “it's a population that can really have a big budget impact because cancer survivors are such intense users of health services. We've learned there's a whole energy balance issue and now we're really trying to ferret out how body weight status plays a role in how people get through treatment successfully, and how it influences their long-term survivorship and overall health afterwards."

Studies have shown that obesity increases the chances of prostate cancer recurrence, regardless of race. Obesity has also been shown to hinder breast cancer treatment. Other studies show that women who gain weight in adulthood have a higher risk of all types of breast cancer.

Cancer prevention isn’t just about diet, shown by advanced technology

Advancements in technology have shown researchers that cancer prevention isn’t just about diet – it’s a whole way of life that can keep us cancer free. AICR Director of Research, Susan Higginbotham, PhD, RD, MPH ,an epidemiologist and a registered dietitian says, "Researchers are examining the totality of evidence in ways that were not possible before. The AICR/WCRF expert report is an example of this comprehensive approach to synthesizing results from many different studies. Computer technologies and the statistical software available to researchers are much more advanced today than they were even ten years ago.

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From these research reviews, patterns are emerging that suggest it's the whole diet and ways of life, rather than single exposures like isolated nutrients or vitamins that are important for the prevention of cancer and other chronic diseases." Cancer prevention means not smoking, reducing exposure to environmental pollution, and managing stress that promotes tumor growth. Cancer risk can be reduced through simple lifestyle interventions.

We know that food influences cancer genes

Genes play an important role in cancer development. In the last ten years researchers have failed to find any cancer protection from antioxidant supplements. Whole foods contain chemicals that turn cancer causing genes off and other genes on that prevent cancer. Some foods clearly promote cancer, and others are major players for cancer prevention, shown by a variety of studies.

Karen Collins, MS, RD Nutrition Advisor to AICR and a nationally syndicated columnist in the field of diet and nutrition since 1991 explains, "Research now shows that healthy eating means much more than getting enough of a few specific nutrients like vitamin C and beta-carotene. Vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans, nuts and seeds contain thousands of phytochemicals, many of which influence one or more stages of cancer development.

Some of these compounds can "turn on" genes that protect us from cancer and "turn off" genes that can promote cancer development. This is a key message because it makes variety in the plant foods we eat more important than ever. It also explains why studies using supplements often don't show the cancer protection that might have been expected."

More people are aware of lifestyle practices and cancer prevention

Jed Fahey, MS, ScD, a nutritional biochemist and Faculty Research Associate at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine says more people are becoming aware of the link between cancer and unhealthy lifestyles.
"Over the past decade, we, and many others, have been excited by our contributions to better understanding the basic science of these associations, and the epidemiologic evidence has continued to grow. For me, the most pleasant surprise of the past decade has been the dramatic increase in public awareness of these interrelationships, and the increase in people practicing - or at least talking about - healthy lifestyles."

AICR's Susan Higginbotham says there is more to come in the next ten years. Scientists anticipate the ability to identify specific interventions for individuals at high risk for certain types of cancer. Adding certain foods to the diet, and reducing alcohol intake for some subgroups can lead to a personalized approach for cancer prevention. Higginbotham says, “There are studies in the pipeline right now that could provide the answers to questions we couldn't even contemplate just a decade ago”, adding, "It's an exciting time to be in this field.”

AICR News Release