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The Physicians Committee

Cancer patients' bravery not echoed in bold policy

By Jennifer K. Reilly, R.D.

This opinion piece ran March 30, 2007 in The Houston Chronicle.

Their political views may seem miles apart. But Elizabeth Edwards, wife of presidential candidate John Edwards, and White House press secretary Tony Snow clearly have at least one thing in common: a whole lot of backbone.

Edwards recently told the public that her breast cancer has recurred, and the White House has announced that the colon cancer Snow beat two years ago has returned and spread to his liver. Both have displayed courageous optimism in the face of this potentially devastating news.

Unfortunately, the bravery of these two high-profile figures — and that of thousands of other people coping with cancer far outside the media spotlight — is not yet being matched by bold action on the part of lawmakers and public health institutions. As a dietitian who works with
cancer survivors, I still meet far too many people who don't realize the crucial role that healthy diets can play in cancer prevention and survival.

Americans deserve to know that good nutrition can save lives. It's time for an ambitious new bipartisan effort to put serious funding behind public education programs. Spurred on by the examples of Edwards and Snow, Democrats and Republicans could work together to earmark serious new money for the woefully underfunded 5 A Day Program, which promotes consumption of cancer-fighting fruits and vegetables, as well as completely new initiatives to reach the public.

Cancer is a complicated disease, of course. We know that genetics play a role in causation, as do environmental factors. But the China Health Study and other research on populations around the world have shown that people on low-fat, plant-based diets have strikingly low cancer rates. When it comes to breast cancer and colon cancer, the scientific evidence is particularly compelling: Vegetarian diets rich in fruits and vegetables offer powerful protective benefits, especially when compared with the high-fat, meat-heavy eating habits so common in a nation dominated by the Golden Arches and the Colonel's Secret Recipe.

Research has shown that people who regularly eat red or processed meats are up to 50 percent more likely to develop colon cancer — the second leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the United States — than those who don't eat meat. A scientific review published last year in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute shows that the risk of developing stomach cancer increases an astonishing 15 percent to 38 percent if consumption of processed meats — like bacon, ham and sausage— is increased by just 1 ounce daily.

An analysis of more than 90,000 premenopausal women in Harvard's Nurses' Health Study II showed that those who consumed 1 1/2 or more servings of red meat per day had nearly double the risk of developing hormone-receptor-positive breast cancer — the most common type of breast cancer — of women consuming three or fewer servings of red meat
per week.

Even women who have already been diagnosed with breast cancer can still benefit from healthier diets, according to a growing body of research. The National Cancer Institute's Women's Intervention Nutrition Study, for example, found that low-fat dieters with estrogen-negative tumors experienced a dramatic 42 percent reduction in recurrence.

But these important facts are not reaching American consumers. Less than one-third of U.S. adults eat fruit at least two times a day, and only about 27 percent eat vegetables at least three times daily, according to a recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and

Unhealthy food is backed by heavy-duty marketing muscle. The McDonald's Corp. alone spends more than a billion dollars a year marketing its products to consumers. Lawmakers should at least match that figure by pumping a billion dollars into new education efforts in support of healthy dietary patterns.

Finding the political will to carve out that funding for nutrition education won't be easy. But if lawmakers need a shot of courage, they can simply look to Snow and Edwards for inspiration.

Jennifer K. Reilly is a senior nutritionist for The Cancer Project.


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