Diet & Other Lifestyle Factors in Hereditary Cancers
by Drea Thew
Presenter: Nagi Kumar, PhD, RD, FADA, Director of Nutrition Research, Associate Professor, Department of Interdisciplinary Oncology, University of South Florida College of Medicine
Women with increased potential for hereditary breast and ovarian cancer often wonder if dietary and lifestyle choices can reduce their risk. Dr. Kumar discussed known causes of cancer in the general population, including tobacco, diet, obesity, and a sedentary lifestyle. She summarized studies that show diet influences risk. In particular, Western cultures, as in North America, where the typical diet is 45-75 percent meat, dairy and sugar, have a much higher incidence ofcancer than Africa, Asia, and other cultures where fruits, vegetables and whole grains account for 50-90 percent of the average diet.
Cancers don’t develop overnight. Their multistep evolution takes several years: from normal cells to irregular cells and eventually to cancer. Dr. Kumar described the current understanding of “carcinogenesis,” how cancer develops and disrupts the normal cycle of cell maturation, differentiation and apoptosis (programmed cell death). “Mutagenesis” occurs when genetics or external factors (smoking, sun exposure, etc.) cause cells to divide uncontrollably. Advances in molecular oncology and genetics suggest cancer may be preventable, even with a genetic predisposition. So we may have time to intervene during development and stop or reverse cellular damage. “We consume food every day. We know that nutrients can affect this process of carcinogenesis,” said Dr. Kumar.
Dr. Kumar shared good news about her research of how obesity and body fat distribution may affect breast cancer risk: fat concentrated in the upper body, usually described as “android” fat distribution or an “apple-shaped” body, was found to increase breast cancer five-fold. This was associated with a poorer prognosis among those who were diagnosed with breast cancer. Weight loss, however, had a significant positive impact. Dr. Kumar found with minimal weight reduction, even 10-15 pounds, most weight was lost in the upper body, meaning this android risk factor may be modifiable.
Dr. Kumar offered eight suggestions for women with hereditary risk for breast and ovarian cancer:
- Maintain your “ideal” body weight. Limit intake of red meat, and increase
protein with “good fats” such as seafood.
- Eat reasonable portion sizes.
- Eat a minimum of 8-10 fruits and vegetables a day. Research shows
produce has more than 55 nutrients that can aid the DNA damage/repair
process. (See sidebar)
- Improve and maintain bone strength. A daily supplement of calcium citrate,
phosphorus, magnesium and vitamins A and D is recommended. Increased
physical activity and resistance training is also helpful.
- Adopt a physically active lifestyle. Staying active prevents obesity,
modulates hormone levels and lowers risks in unexplained ways. Try for 45
minutes of exercise, 5 days a week. This can be as simple as going for a
- Ideally, avoid liquor altogether. If you drink alcohol, limit consumption.
Alcohol may have more damaging effects for BRCA carriers than the
general population. If you choose to drink red wine for its health benefits,
drink no more than one glass per day.
- Stop smoking. Smoking is responsible for a very large percentage of many
- Avoid sun exposure. UV rays promote mutagenesis. Wear sunscreen and
protective clothing when you mustbe in the sun.
Cancer Fighting Nutrients
Examples of nutrients & nutrient-derived agents which may safeguard against the
carcinogenic process include:
- Vitamin A (milk, eggs, carrots, spinach)
- Vitamin C (citrus)
- Vitamin E (nuts, vegetable oils)
- Carotenoids (orange and dark green fruits and vegetables)
- Lycopene (tomato products, particularly catsup and cooked
- Selenium (meats, seafood, Brazil nuts)
- Polyphenols (tea, coffee)
- Allylic sulphides (garlic, onions)
- Antimutagenic agents
- Isoflavones (flax, soy)
- Tannic acid (tamarind, tea)
- Curcumin (turmeric)
- Polyphenols (peanuts, green and white tea, red wine, olive oil, dark
- Omega-3 fatty acids (fatty fish) and omega-9 fatty acids (canola oil,
- Resveratrol (red grapes, red wine)
Many of these agents and others are being investigated in clinical intervention trials.
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