Fighting cancer on the home front

Thursday, June 17, 2004

Last week brought great news to all who are interested in maintaining a vital healthspan: We appear to be winning the war on cancer, according to the National Cancer Institute's annual report.

Both death rates from cancer and incident rates have been steadily declining since the early 1990s. And that is true for both men and women.

So what can you and I do on the home front of this war?

Plenty, it seems. Only 5 to 10 percent of cancers are believed to be due to heredity. That gives us control over a whopping 90 percent.

The most common contributing factors to cancer incidence are smoking, sun exposure and diet. Readers of this column already know about the lethal charms of Mr. Sun. And I am also giving you all credit for knowing that smoking is a bad, bad thing.

That leaves diet. According to the Cleveland Clinic Men's Health Advisory: "A full 30 percent of all cancers can be traced to diet." They recommend moving toward a more plant-based diet.

Why? Because fruits and vegetables pack a double whammy: cancer-fighting nutrients and fiber.

Fiber is essential, according to the Cleveland Clinic folks. A fiber-rich diet helps foods pass through the digestive tract more quickly. And that means that the body has a shorter exposure to potentially cancer-causing substances in the diet.

Also, vegetables contain what are called "phytonutrients," found in the pigments that give fruits and vegetables their luscious colors. They are highly antioxidant, which means they will fight off the damage to our genes that can bring on the kind of rampant cell division that leads to cancer.

What seems to be a good idea is to eat as colorful a plate of vegetables and fruits as you can. Think rainbow ... green (broccoli, salad greens, spinach), purple (eggplant, figs, prunes), yellow-orange (apricots, corn, carrots), red (tomatoes, beets, strawberries).

The World Cancer Research Fund, along with the American Institute of Cancer, convened a panel that swears by our vegetable friends. High on the list of recommendations is consuming 400 grams a day of a variety of vegetables and fruits. In fact, they go so far as to say that following this advice "could, by itself, decrease overall cancer incidence by at least 20 percent. The evidence is convincing or probable that diets high in vegetables and/or fruits protect against cancers of the mouth and pharynx, oesophagus, lung, stomach, colon and rectum, larynx, pancreas, breast and bladder."

Our own government is weighing in on the subject. Officials are encouraging us to eat nine (yes, I said nine) portions of fruits and vegetables a day. There is an informative Web site that helps you figure out how to do it: This site is worthwhile for everyone, even though it targets men. (Why? We guys apparently have more trouble with liking our veggies than women ... and we have approximately 1 1/2 times the death rate of total cancers as women.)

The War on Cancer is huge. There are a lot of good folks out there on the front lines, coming up with new treatments every day. But those of us who are concerned about our healthspan need to stay vigilant on the home front. Next week, we will look at what else can be done.

Until then, do as your mother told you: eat your vegetables!

Dr. Michael O.L. Seabaugh is a Cape Girardeau native who is a licensed clinical psychologist with over 20 years experience helping individuals and couples with their emotional and relationship issues. He has a private practice in Santa Barbara and Santa Monica, Calif. Contact him at

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