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Doctors Must Help Cancer Patients Embrace Healthy Diets

By Ron Allison, M.D.

This op-ed was published in the Herald-Sun in Durham, N.C..

Every three minutes, a woman in the United States makes a grim discovery that will change her life—or end it. Being diagnosed with breast cancer is a devastating experience, but the good news is that a growing number of cases are caught early enough to allow for effective treatment, thanks to a massive public education effort.

Now for the bad news. As an oncologist, I think the public health community is failing breast cancer patients on another front. Women deserve much more information than they usually get about how low-fat, plant-based diets can help them survive this disease—or even prevent it in the first place.

New research has thrown a spotlight on this issue. A recent study sponsored by the National Cancer Institute found that a very low-fat diet decreased the risk of breast cancer recurrence by more than 40 percent in patients with one form of the disease.

To me, the most astonishing thing about this study was the amount of surprise generated by the results. We’ve known about the cancer-fighting power of healthy diets for a very long time. Way back in 1982, the National Research Council linked eating habits—particularly high-fat, meat-heavy diets—to cancer of the breast and other organs.

In the decades since, a mountain of studies have found that cancer is much more common in populations consuming diets high in fatty foods, particularly meat, and much less common in countries where people eat diets rich in grains, vegetables, and fruits.

In 2003, the Journal of the National Cancer Institute reported that the rate of breast cancer among premenopausal women who ate the most animal fat was a third higher than that of women who ate the least animal fat. A study published in the Lancet that same year similarly linked diets high in saturated fat to breast cancer.

Researchers continue to explore and debate the exact reasons why vegetarians and semi-vegetarians tend to have lower cancer rates. Is it largely because plant-based diets are higher in fiber and the cancer-fighting phytochemicals found in fruits and vegetables? Or is the critical factor that meat contains animal protein, saturated fat, and often, heterocyclic amines and other carcinogens formed in the cooking process?

Whatever the exact mechanism, the protective power of plant-based diets is clear. Every year, more evidence accumulates. But here’s the problem: those scientific facts are not being translated into clear recommendations that are communicated to breast cancer patients and other people who need this information.

This communications gap has some obvious causes. First, being treated for cancer is a physical and emotional challenge unlike any other. Many women and their doctors are simply focused on getting through chemotherapy, radiation, or the surgical process.

All too often, there isn’t enough energy left to focus on the preventive steps patients should take after finishing their initial treatment. And far too many physicians simply don’t know enough about nutrition to adequately counsel patients about changing their diets. Unfortunately, that can leave women open to an increased risk of new tumor growth.

Finally, any message about plant-based diets is tough to convey in today’s toxic food environment. When television is full of fast-food ads promoting high-fat helpings of flame-broiled burgers and deep-fried chicken (two cooking processes that promote carcinogen production), it’s no easy task to convince someone to put together healthy meals full of fresh ingredients from the produce department.

But to be frank, these are more like excuses than true obstacles. If we’re going to leverage the power of healthy lifestyles to treat and prevent this disease, physicians and public health authorities have to speak up. The 200,000 women diagnosed with breast cancer every year deserve nothing less.

Ron Allison, M.D., is an oncologist who practices in North Carolina. Dr. Allison is a member of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.


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