Cancer prevention starts with healthy living

By: Dr. Ashwani Garg, MD, Family Physician

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Colorectal cancer is the third most common cancer in the world with 1.4 million new cases diagnosed in 2012, according to the World Cancer Research Fund International. It’s estimated that roughly half of these can be prevented by lifestyle changes, including healthy eating, physical activity and avoidance of tobacco and alcohol.

In the U.S., the risk of getting colon cancer in one’s lifetime is 5 percent, and 50,000 Americans are expected to die of colorectal cancer in 2015, according to the American Cancer Society. Currently, there are about 1 million survivors.

A recent report by World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer classified processed meat such as bacon, hot dogs, lunch meats and sausage as definite carcinogens. The evidence was very strong, as over 800 studies were reviewed by 22 experts from 10 different nations.

Red meat was classified as a probable carcinogen, and as far as risk, the panel calculated that a small serving of processed meat (50 grams) would “only” raise the risk of colorectal cancer by 18 percent. That would mean that the lifetime risk of an average American would go from 5 to 6 percent.

I saw many articles in newspapers and blogs proclaiming that processed meat is “not as bad” as smoking, since smoking would raise the chances of lung cancer 25 times over.

I have a different take on this information.

As a physician focusing on lifestyle changes, my goal isn’t just mitigation of risks, but actual risk reduction. Colonoscopies are recommended for Americans over 50 as a strategy to reduce cancer death because polyps are taken out. My goal is to reduce the chances of polyps and cancer in the first place.

Worldwide, there are very wide variations in colon cancer incidence. The nations of southern North American, Central America, South Asia, sub-Saharan Africa and Middle Africa have incidence of colon cancer that is far less the incidence of that in the US.

Why, with such high technology and resources, is colon cancer so high?

It’s mostly lifestyle. One’s diet, physical activity and avoidance of tobacco and alcohol are the most important factors. By default, the cuisines of these countries are mostly plant-based, and in the case of India, perhaps spices are partly responsible for the reduced cancer rate.

The question we should be asking is not how much processed meat and red meat we can get away with without getting colon cancer, but rather what steps we can take to actually reduce chances of colon cancer.

If everyone fought as hard to prevent cancer as they did when they were diagnosed with cancer, we would have much fewer cancer cases in the U.S. Our goal shouldn’t be a slight reduction in cancer, but it should be to reduce it by 50 percent or more. There is a population in the U.S. who accomplishes this goal, and that’s the Seventh-day Adventist population in California, who has more than a 50 percent reduction of colorectal cancer incidence.

Knowing the above, I chose to eat only fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts and seeds, and shun all meat, dairy, egg and cheese in hopes that I can reduce my chance of dying from cancer and heart disease as much as possible. I chose not even to consume a little alcohol or smoke one cigarette because again, I want to reduce my chances of cancer.

There are factors beyond my control like environment, pesticides, etc., but I want to do the best possible. We have a fiduciary responsibility to our family and society to do the best possible to try to reduce our risks of getting ill.

Look at the big picture and don’t lose the forest for the trees. There’s a big difference between saying eating a little red and processed meat will only raise my chances of cancer by 18 percent, or eating an unprocessed diet of plant foods will reduce my risks of cancer by the most possible. Why not go for the gold?

Only 3 percent of Americans are lacking protein, while almost all are deficient in fiber and potassium. Where is this fiber found? It’s found in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts and seeds. There’s no fiber in meat, cheese, egg and dairy foods. Fiber is the nutrient that reduces incidence of colon cancer, found in numerous studies over and over.

Protein has never been associated with reduction in the risk of cancer. Actually, it’s quite the opposite. Most Americans have excess protein, which leads to disease. Usually the protein is accompanied with fat, which causes heart disease. If you focus on whole, unprocessed grains, beans, veggies, you will get enough protein, because all living things contain protein.