In the United States, 1 in 2 men will battle some form of cancer in their lifetime, 1 in 3 women will face cancer in their lifetime. Cancer will steal youth and life from some 1,545 children diagnosed in 2007. In the United States in 2007, approximately 10,400 children under age 15 were diagnosed with cancer. Early estimates for 2009 hypothesize that 10,730 children were diagnosed last year. This makes cancer the leading cause of death by disease among children in the United States. (NCI Cancer Fact Sheet "Childhood Cancers")
The World Health Organization cites,
In the year 2000, malignant tumours were responsible for 12 % of the nearly 56 million deaths worldwide from all causes. In many countries, more than a quarter of deaths are attributable to cancer. In 2000, 5.3 million men and 4.7 million women developed a malignant tumour and altogether 6.2 million died from the disease. The report also reveals that cancer has emerged as a major public health problem in developing countries, matching its effect in industrialized nations. (WHO Global Cancer Rates)
The cancer process involves the initiation, promotion, malignant transformation and tumor progression. Chemicals called carcinogens can turn otherwise healthy cells into cancer cells within minutes. Most carcinogens are industrial byproducts but nature does form a few, such as Aflatoxin. Another way for cancer to initiate is by miscopying of the cell during the dividing process that can cause a dangerous mutation. At the second stage, promotion can take years to progress depending on the type of cancer. It is as these cells multiple that the tumors become visible and detectable. Yet, in order to grow and proliferate cancer cells also require the right environment. According to Dr. Campbell, "Promotion is reversible, depending on whether the early cancer growth is given the right conditions in which to grow. This is where certain dietary factors become so important. These dietary factors, call promoters, feed cancer growth. Other dietary factors, call anti-promoters, slow cancer growth." (Campbell & Campbell 50) Dr. Campbell's thoughts are echoed by the 2006 American Cancer Society (ACS) Guidelines on Nutrition and Physical Activity that points out "nutrients in the diet can protect DNA from being damaged."
According to the 2006 American Cancer Society (ACS) Guidelines on Nutrition and Physical Activity one third of more than 500,000 cancer deaths each year can be attributed to diet and physical activity habits. (Kushi, et al 254) The ACS guidelines also recommend, "consume a healthy diet, with an emphasis on plant sources" along with adopt a physically active lifestyle and maintain a healthy weight. (Kushi, et al 256) Which seems like common sense; common sense that can be hard to find the tools to implement.
During two of NIH research projects (one human, one animal), that Dr. Campbell took part in as a Nutrition Researcher, discovered (when studying the promotion stage of cancer) that low-protein diets could
..reduce tumors though the following mechanisms:
- Less aflatoxin entered the cell
- Cells multiplied more slowly
- Multiple changes occurred within the enzyme complex to reduce activity
- The quantity of critical components of the relevant enzymes was reduced.
- Less aflatoxin-DNA adducts were formed. (Campbell & Campbell 53)
The China Study, a study of 170 villages in rural China, Dr. Campbell also discovered, "As blood cholesterol levels decreased from 170 mg/dL to 90 md/dL. Cancers of the liver, rectum, colon, male lung, female lung, breast, childhood leukemia, adult leukemia, childhood brain, adult brain, stomach and esophagus (throat) decreased...Most American's know that if you have high cholesterol, you should worry about your heart, but they don't know that you might want to worry about cancer as well." (Campbell & Campbell 78-79)
DietIt is through our diet that we get the nutrition that provides for our cells to function. It is just common sense that a healthy diet is the apart of the arsenal of weapons for chronic disease prevention. But 'healthy diet' is a term that has broad, generic meaning and, depending on any given persons knowledge about diet and nutrition, can be very different from person to person. Factors such as tradition and religion play a part in how diet and nutrition intergrades' on an individual level. The World Health Organization acknowledges that eating habits transfer from one population to another quickly in our shrinking world. "Modern dietary patterns and physical activity patterns are risk behaviors that travel across countries and are transferable from one population to another like an infectious disease, affecting disease patterns globally." (WHO 5)
Studies have showed that a flexitarian diet can be just as beneficial as a vegetarian diet in warding off the popular chronic diseases of our culture, including cancer. But I am of the personal opinion that looking at your genetic genealogy is also a good way to make educated decisions about what choices will increase or decrease your own personal risk.
Diet is an important key component, as is physical activity, the quality of our friendships, our ability to have compassion for one another, and the way we process stress in our lives. In a recent article in Scientific American, "Forget Survival of the Fittest; It Is Kindness That Counts" the author interviewed Dacher Keltner, director of the Berkeley Social Interaction Laboratoryabout his new book,
Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life. Keltner new book weaves together scientific findings with personal narrative to uncover the innate power of human emotion to connect people with each other. He argues is the path to living the good life. (Scientific American Feb. 26, 2009)
On page 2 of the interview Keltner describes how, "The vagus nerve is part of the parasympathetic autonomic nervous system. It is a bundle of nerves that originates in the top of the spinal cord, it activates different organs throughout the body (heart, lungs, liver, digestive organs). When active, it is likely to produce that feeling of warm expansion in the chest, for example when we are moved by someone's goodness or when we appreciate a beautiful piece of music. University of Illinois, Chicago, psychiatrist Steve Porges long ago argued that the vagus nerve is a care-taking organ in the body (of course, it serves many other functions as well). Several reasons justify this claim. The vagus nerve is thought to stimulate certain muscles in the vocal chamber, enabling communication. It reduces heart rate. Very new science suggests that it may be closely connected to oxytocin receptor networks. And it is unique to mammals.
Our research and that of other scientists suggests that the vagus nerve may be a physiological system that supports caretaking and altruism. We have found that activation of the vagus nerve is associated with feelings of compassion and the ethical intuition that humans from different social groups (even adversarial ones) share a common humanity. People who have high vagus nerve activation in a resting state, we have found, are prone to feeling emotions that promote altruism—compassion, gratitude, love, happiness. Arizona State University psychologist Nancy Eisenberg has found that children with elevated vagal tone (high baseline vagus nerve activity) are more cooperative and likely to give. This area of study is the beginning of a fascinating new argument about altruism—that a branch of our nervous system evolved to support such behavior." (Scientific American Feb. 26, 2009 web)
He also mentions that, "Meditating on a compassionate approach to others shifts resting brain activation to the left hemisphere, a region associated with happiness, and boosts immune functions.
Talking about areas of gratitude, in classrooms, at the dinner table or in the diary, boosts happiness and social well-being and health."
All of this takes me back to a year after my son's diagnosis with a cancerous brain tumor. And though I feel strongly that diet is a key component, it is one component in the overall picture. As I was looking back and reflecting what really helped Kevin make it through that very tough road, I recalled this vivid memory I wrote about on our family blog,
"I have this powerful memory of Kevin, in a hospital gown, with blood still stuck in his hair from the surgery, and just barely enough balance to sit in a chair. It was dark outside, so probably evening, and our family was gathered around Kevin. We were surrounded by a ton of little stuffed animals and gifts family, friends and strangers had sent. Someone had just brought in the cards his 2nd grade class had made for him. There my son sat, in a chair maybe for the first time since his surgery, reading the cards his classmates made for him. I will never forget the smile I saw as he read the cards. One of the little girls even signed her name with 'Love, so-and-so'. I saw Kevin's spirits rise in that moment. Those little handmade cards meant the world to him. They gave him power I couldn't, the doctor's couldn't, his dad couldn't. Only his classmates could and did."
It is empathy, an ability to work together and communicate that seems to separate us from other species. It also seems to play a key role in our health. So maybe it's a good idea to share your healthy habits and meals with others; make time and space to for friendships. It may just keep you (and them) a little bit healthier.