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Cancer prevention: myths, cons and big fat lies

Hard on the heels of the study that claimed to show fruit and vegetables don't prevent cancer, comes this doozy: The world's largest breast cancer charity, Susan G. Komen For the Cure®, has teamed up with KFC "to raise funds and spread breast cancer awareness and educational messaging". Participating KFC franchises in the US will donate 50c from the sale of every specially-designed pink bucket of Original Recipe and Grilled chicken. It's not hard to figure out what's in this for KFC. What better than a campaign that gives warm fuzzy feelings about their brand, and the impression that junk food, theirs in particular, is part of the solution, not part of the problem? 'Pink washing' is just another form of plain old PR. But what is Komen thinking??? The end result of this kind of unholy alliance (which is becoming increasingly common among medical charities) is to confuse the public and downplay the crucial role that poor dietary choices diet play in increasing a woman's risk of breast cancer.

Breast_Cancer__KFC

Some people may take offence at me criticising cancer charities. But as a health practitioner, I am deeply offended by any organisation or individual that contributes, intentionally or unwittingly, to the culture of misinformation, obfuscation and outright deceit that surrounds cancer and cancer research. Cancer patients, and those at risk of cancer, deserve better than that.

For starters, even the tag-line 'For the Cure' shifts the focus completely off prevention - which surely ought to be the major focus of any charity that bills itself as "the world’s largest grassroots network of breast cancer survivors and activists". If you or someone you loved had suffered cancer, wouldn't you want to prevent others from going through that same agony? In fact, according to the Komen website only 7% of the over US$151 million that Komen collected and distributed in the years 2008-09 was spent on prevention strategies. This is certainly not unique to Komen; a glance at the research projects funded in 2010 by The National Breast Cancer Foundation here in Australia, shows only one project was aimed at prevention - and the prevention strategy involved was so-called 'prophylactic mastectomy': surgical removal of a breast that was not currently affected by cancer, in a woman carrying BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutations. Not a word - let alone a research project - on true prevention of breast cancer through actually implementing the vast body of knowledge on diet and lifestyle factors that has been accumulated over decades.

The Komen website's list of breast cancer risk factors emphasises those that are completely beyond your control, such as your age, sex, family history, genetic mutations and breast density; and fails to even mention research that clearly demonstrates how diet and lifestyle choices impact on these risk factors.

For example, researchers involved in the Nurses' Health Study - a large, ongoing study of the health of female US nurses - found that women with the highest blood levels of carotenoids (a family of yellow-orange pigments found in many fruits and vegetables) had the lowest risk of breast cancer. That was no great surprise; other researchers have reported this finding previously. But among women with the densest breasts, those who had the highest levels of carotenoids had a 50% lower risk of breast cancer than those with the lowest carotenoid levels (1). Why wasn't this study splashed all over the media?

While women carrying BRCA1 gene mutations are often led to believe that they will almost certainly develop breast (or ovarian) cancer simply because they have the 'bad' gene, careful analysis has shown that up to 54% of BRCA1 mutation carriers do not develop breast or ovarian cancer (2). Clearly, there are factors (including diet and lifestyle) that modify the expression of this and other 'cancer genes'. Yet which of the breast cancer organisations put money into research on these epigenetic factors? (See my article 'Healthy living trumps genes' to learn more about epigenetics.)
 
Other risk factors for breast cancer on the Komen list include estrogen levels and age at first menstrual period. What they fail to mention is that your estrogen level is primarily determined by what you eat. Vegetarian women have significantly lower estrogen levels than omnivorous women; high-fat diets raise estrogen levels and low-fat diets reduce them (3). And a diet high in animal protein, fat and overall energy (calories/kilojoules), but low in vegetable protein, causes early puberty, while girls with a high intake of legumes, grains and nuts go through puberty later, thus reducing their risk of breast cancer (4, 5).

The Komen list of breast cancer risk factors includes body weight and weight gain. Being heavy, and gaining weight, are also major risk factors for recurrence of breast cancer in a woman who has already had it. Is anybody else out there wondering why Komen would, through their partnership with a global purveyor of porkifying poultry, actively encourage people to eat a food as obesigenic as deep-fried chicken, in an effort to 'find the cure' for breast cancer? What's next? Will the Heart Foundation drop its long-running 'Jump Rope for Heart' fundraiser, and substitute a 'sit on your butt and eat burgers all day' fundraiser? Well, they've already sold the right to use their Tick to McDonalds for $330 000 per year (6).

Meanwhile, Pepsi is financing a program in obesity studies at Yale University (7) - I can't wait to see the conclusions from that research; McDonald’s is a long-term sponsor of the Olympics - yes folks, watch those well-toned athletes perform feats of speed and endurance that require a strict diet and training regime, while you wash your burger and fries down with a Coke; while Diet Coke is a major sponsor of a National Heart Lung & Blood Institute program "to inspire and empower people to work heart healthy behaviors into their lives" (8) - like, maybe, consuming copious amounts of caffeine, which raises a host of heart disease risk factors (9)? Am I living in a Fellini movie?

The Komen cancer risk factor list does not include

  • acrylamide, a cancer-causing chemical (10) formed when you heat starches at high temperatures (would you like fries with that?);
  • MSG - a key ingredient of KFC's breading mix - and other glutamates, which researchers have found receptors for on many different types of cancer cells (11), and which cancer researcher Dr Russell Blaylock refers to as 'cancer fertilizer' (12); or
  • heterocyclic amines, which are associated with an increased risk of receptor-negative breast cancer (13), and occur in particularly high amounts in grilled and pan-fried chicken (14).

So, what's the 'take-away' message here?

The adage 'an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure' may seem cliched, but as anyone who has battled serious illness can attest, it's completely true! Even if you have a strong family history of breast cancer, you have the power to dramatically reduce your risk of developing it yourself, through the daily dietary and lifestyle choices you make.

And if you have young daughters, you need to know that breast tissue is most susceptible to the gene mutations that eventually result in breast cancer, during childhood and adolescence. Girls need to be protected against the carcinogens (cancer-causing substances) found in animal products and browned carbohydrates, and have their defences against cancer strengthened by a high intake of fresh vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts, seeds and whole grains.

The older you are, the more dramatic the changes you will need to make to protect yourself against breast cancer: research shows clearly that relatively small improvements made in childhood and adolescence (such as increasing vegetable and fruit intake) pay big cancer prevention dividends in later life; but older women who make token changes such as switching to low-fat dairy products and eating skinless chicken, cannot expect to derive significant benefit (15). They need to go all-out with a cancer-proofing diet and exercise program.

RobynRobyn Chuter is a university-qualified naturopath, with a Bachelor of Health Science (and the Dean's Medal for Outstanding Academic Achievement) from the University of New England, and a Diploma of Naturopathy from the Australasian College of Natural Therapies. Robyn runs the website Empower Total Health; and she has a naturopathic practice in Sydney, Australia where she specialises in chronic, medically 'incurable' health problems such as IBS, CFS, migraine, high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes.

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