FOOD, CANCER AND ITS TREATMENT

If my chronic bad habit of slipping the through the cracks of a shutting door has not caught up with me, this article made it to the mill and it’s New Year’s Eve – the best day of the year for me signifying the cross over to fresh aspirations and hope. I am an adept resolution maker and my resolution this year is I will keep them all! My sister and I have a belief that whatever you are doing when the clock strikes midnight is what you will be successful at in the coming year. We never sleep. 

If not, it’s the first Monday of January. Whatever the situation, we must continue chatting about the important subject of food and cancer.  Why is this topic persistently on my mind? Well the past month has seen me talk a lot about diet in my consultations with patients. Possibly it was because of the festive season and most of them needed assurances how they will enjoy this special period of the year.  As the year starts we can make New Years resolutions on what to stock our fridges and pantries. It is an absolute privilege to provide you with information to help you decide.

Doing my research on cancer preventative foods and finding facts to put my pen to paper on was particularly hard for me. This is because as a clinician scientist I know that compound does not directly translate to effect meaning just because a lab found that a certain food has high concentrations of a compound with anticancer properties consuming it may or may not translate into benefit. For example turmeric, which is a super food, has a potent substance called curcumin. However, curcumin is poorly absorbed from the gut when consumed in turmeric and on top of that the concentrations in tolerable portions are far less the ones used in studies where the pure forms were extracted. The lesser evil is that it may have no effect as it passes through the body unabsorbed. The greater evil is some beneficial compounds in excess or pure forms can actually cause cancer. A case in point is vitamin E which showed a potential risk for prostate cancer. If you are an enthusiast and want to read further on this dig up the article by Chung S. Yang et al called ‘Does vitamin E prevent or promote cancer?’ Because vitamin supplements and extracted natural products has become a multi billion-dollar industry it is hard to discern fact from fanatics and marketing even for me as a medical doctor.

The first product I think you should stock up with is not really a food but a piece of equipment. A good blender or food processor. Personally, this versatile piece of equipment is the best thing since disposable diapers. It allows you to make tasty and healthy breakfast smoothies and soups for meals pumped with a multitude of nutrients, which is simply impossible to do otherwise. The good thing is that these smoothies and soups can be had on the go, so it fits in very well with our busy non-stop lifestyles. 

After reading a wide range of literature on foods and anticancer properties I settled on fibre for this article. 

Fruits and vegetables contain fibre and useful minerals and vitamins. The link between fibres and their ability to reduce the risk of cancers appears to be strong. The key is consistency. In the 1950s an Irish doctor by the name of Denis Burkitt made a missionary expedition to Africa with the aim of improving healthcare. He noted that the rate of colorectal cancer was very low here. At a dinner party recently somebody recounted a story of when he had attended a lecture delivered by the famous Burkitt who showed two piles of stool. A high one attributed to an African and a little one attributed to an English man demonstrating the differences in diet and predisposition to colon cancer and other ailments. Other than the fact that in todays world that lecture would be deemed politically incorrect, my mind has a suspicion that Africans of that day simply didn’t have the life expectancy to develop colon cancer, which is a disease of the elderly.

None the less, fibres encourage consumed food to move along gut from mouth to expulsion. Along with the food any potential cancer generating substances called carcinogens are moved along, reducing their chance of absorption. 
A contemporary fascination in the science world has been the effect of the bacteria in the gut has on cancer and other conditions including those of the brain! A diet full of fibre encourages the existence of so called good bacteria, which in turn encourages good chemical processes and high immunity. This creates a lovely anti cancer environment in ones body.

Our First Republican President is famously a vegetarian. Many attribute his long life and continued acumen to this. It will take quite a shift in taste and attitude as Zambians where meat is ‘goodie milile’ to achieve this but baby steps by having days in a week where you consume plant-based meals may be a good starting point.

During cancer treatment many people become very self-aware and are most likely to change their diet to a plant based one rich in fibre. Paradoxically this may not be a good idea as it worsens certain side effects like diarrhoea and anorexia. When one has cancer you need to rebuild your body. Good proteins and high calorie intake must be an integral part of your diet. Additionally the anticancer treatment tends to cause ‘shedding’ of the lining of the gut so dietary fibre may aggravate an increased frequency of bowel motions putting the patient at risk of dehydration. As such during cancer treatment we tend to advise patients to avoid a lot fibres in the diet. However, there is a plant called psyllium, which has fast become my favourite because it does not induce dependence. When constipated it encourages bowel motion and when with diarrhoea it can absorb the excess fluid and arrest it. It all depends on the preparation. For cancer patients having this trick in the bag can be useful as the pain medication causes a lot of constipation as well. Fellow countrymen and women as we enter a new year I wish you a prosperous 2019 filled with good health. As the Zambian Cancer Society says: More birthdays and less cancer in 2019!

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