Fight cancer with food

Editor’s note: The 26th annual National Cancer Survivors Day, which celebrates life after cancer, was observed Sunday. This is a story by one of the nearly 14 million survivors living in the United States.

Probably the scariest word in the English language is the “C” word, cancer. And five years ago, I had to face the big C not once, but twice.

It began with a lump on my neck that turned out to be thyroid cancer. After shedding numerous tears with friends and family, I underwent surgery to remove the whole gland. Fortunately, the cancer had not spread, and I was told I’d live my normal life span.

But my peace of mind only lasted a few months. That’s when a routine mammogram revealed breast cancer, a bean-sized malignancy unassociated with what had caused me to lose my thyroid.

After more boo-hooing, I underwent a lumpectomy. And I ended up giving many thanks that this tumor, too, had not metastasized. But two unrelated cancers within one year? Why had I been so cursed?

Dr. Thomas Sellers of Tampa’s Moffitt Cancer Center says that “as many as 70 percent of known causes of cancer are avoidable and related to lifestyle.”

Genes are certainly part of the complex mix of factors leading to cancer. But environment and daily habits also have a huge impact.

On the positive side, I’d walked a mile a day for years, and I didn’t smoke or handle harmful chemicals. But the one big bugaboo in my routine, I now guiltily realize, was what I, the food writer and lover of all things edible, had been putting into my body.

It was a kindly but stern nutritionist at Baton Rouge’s Mary Bird Perkins Cancer Center who first made me shamefaced as she rattled off a list of foods that potentially damage health: drive-through burgers, fries and fried chicken, fat-laden breakfast sandwiches, candy bars, potato chips and gooey pastries, stuff I knew wasn’t healthy yet still gulped down without a second thought.

Then I told her I drank wine while I cooked, which was most days, and she actually gave me the proverbial evil eye. Yikes! I got her not-so-subtle hint.

Research dietitian Kelly Atteberry, of Baton Rouge’s Pennington Biomedical Research Center, also believes we can reduce the risk of getting cancer by watching what we eat.

Atteberry advocates consuming a nutrient-dense, preferably organic plant-based diet, as well as avoiding processed foods. She also points out that the National Cancer Institute concludes an astounding 20 percent to 40 percent of cancer patients die from causes related to malnutrition, not from the cancer itself.

Faced with giving up things that saved time, cured boredom and generally made me happy, I had to work hard to modify my mind-set. So I started thinking of food like fuel for an expensive sports car; watered-down cheap stuff or the wrong octane can cause engine knocks and breakdowns. And in humans, alcohol and sugary, fried and over-processed foods can cause ill health.

I began correcting my ne’er-do-well dining habits by eliminating fast food. I then reluctantly trimmed fat off red meat, learned to love turkey and salmon, and gave up boudin and cracklin’s (well, sort of). Beans and brightly colored vegetables became staple menu items, and to combat nutrient loss during cooking I now eat more things raw.

Gone, too, are the candy and chips and pastries. Afternoon snacks now include vitamin- and mineral-rich things like fruit, nuts and veggie sticks with hummus. And I wash it all down with a pot of antioxidant-rich, hot green tea, a ritual I’ve grown to enjoy.

I have always tremendously enjoyed cooking. But today I do it with a lot less butter and a lot more olive oil, and without a Fry Daddy and the crutch of wine.

Alcohol, as it turns out, increases circulating estrogen levels. And my breast surgeon told me too much estrogen is what caused my breast cancer, but that many different things increase estrogen.

According to the Journal of the American Medical Association, however, even as little as three alcoholic drinks per week increases the risk of breast cancer, so I have curtailed my consumption dramatically.

Now, I’m not going to pretend that everything that appears on my table is considered health food. My pantry is filled with canned and, therefore, salty soups. A half gallon of Blue Bell Natural Vanilla Bean resides in my freezer.

On weekends I indulge in a glass of wine, and I am no stranger at the local Popeye’s. But wholesome foods have become the larger part of my diet, and foods with little nutritional value have been relegated to an every-now-and-then treat.

Since my last surgery, all my mammograms and thyroid ultrasounds have been clear. So, when I go for checkups, am I still scared? You bet. But if cancer does again interrupt my life, I’ll fight it with all the tools of modern medicine. And I’ll keep exercising. And I’ll once again cry on friendly shoulders — but this time I won’t beat myself up for not eating right.


Sources: Kelly Atteberry, RD, LDN, Pennington Biomedical Research Center;;;