Fighting the Ten Hallmarks of Cancer with Food
The foundation of cancer prevention is plants, not pills.
BY NUTRITIONFACTS.ORG MARCH 16, 2022
“The vast majority of cancer research is devoted to finding cures, rather than finding new ways to prevent disease.” And the results of these skewed priorities are plain to see: 2021 is the 50th anniversary of Nixon’s declaration of war on cancer, and the death tolls from the most common forms of cancer in the United States have continued unabated.
“We have been looking at the very nature of cancer in the wrong way.” Breast cancer doesn’t begin when a lump is first detected. All the common cancers like lung, colorectal, breast, and prostate (which account for the majority of deaths) have a long latency period—often 20 years or more. So, it’s not like you were healthy, and then one day you got cancer. You haven’t been healthy—you’ve had cancer growing in you for decades. Indeed, there’s a bizarre misperception that people are “healthy” until they have actual symptoms of invasive cancer. But “[t]he barn in which hay is smoldering before it bursts into flames is not a safe place.”
So, what does this professor of pharmacology recommend? Drugs, of course—chemoprevention: putting people on drugs to prevent cancer. Hey, the pharmaceutical industry spends huge amounts of money to promote chemoprevention of heart disease and strokes with statins and blood thinners. So, why shouldn’t people take drugs every day for the rest of their lives to protect against cancer? There has to be a better way.
What about using diet and nutrition to prevent and treat cancer? Okay, but what kind of cancer? There are more than 200 types of cancer. Ah, but they all share the same hallmarks. In a series of papers cited more than 40,000 times in the biomedical literature, ten hallmarks of cancer have been identified.
Increased sensitivity to growth factors; evading your body’s tumor suppressors; dodging your immune system; being able to grow forever; tumor promoting inflammation; the ability to invade and spread and hook up its own blood supply; the accumulation of DNA mutations; disarming the self-destruct mechanisms in place; and hijacking the cell’s metabolism. And yes, of course, there are classes of drugs to try to counter each one—chemotherapy agents designed to target each piece of the cancer puzzle.
Now ideally, there would be drugs able to target multiple hallmarks at the same time, but that’s not how drugs tend to work. And this is one of the major reasons why, in the context of cancer research, there are so many proponents of investigating plant foods, as they can deliver a cocktail of bioactive compounds—bioactive compounds that may target most, if not all, of the hallmarks of cancer. Here’s a sampling of compounds found in fruits and vegetables such as berries, greens, and broccoli, shown to be able to target each of the ten hallmarks of cancer––at least in a petri dish.
Moreover, they ﬁt the characteristics of an ideal chemopreventive agent. If you were to design the perfect candidate, you’d want them to be selective for cancerous or precancerous cells while leaving normal cells alone, be side effect-free, target most types of cancers, be able to be consumed as a part of a daily diet, be conveniently available almost everywhere, and be relatively inexpensive to boot. And plants have all of these. No wonder those eating more plant-based tend to have lower cancer rates.
However, it should be understood that we’re not talking about taking supplements containing extracts or puriﬁed phytochemicals, but rather eating whole plant foods themselves; more of a food-system based approach to targeting the hallmarks of cancer. Foods contain many thousands of substances that lead to vast numbers of possible interactions, yet much of nutritional science has long been directed towards the impact of single dietary components. Yes, this kind of ‘reductionist’ approach can reveal the role of individual nutrients or foods in the development of disease, but let’s think about what the optimal research strategy would be to study the effects of bioactive natural plant compounds on disease prevention. Instead of using isolated phytochemicals in the management of cancer, how about using whole foods, because sometimes the whole can be greater than the sum of its parts, a concept known as food synergy.
Check out this study. The simultaneous inhibition of a series of cancer stages in breast cancer cells using a phytochemical super-cocktail. Two breast cancer cell lines were treated with six different plant compounds individually, and then altogether, at the level you might find in your bloodstream after eating foods like broccoli, grapes, soybeans, and turmeric. And while the compounds were ineffective individually, in combination they significantly suppressed breast cancer cell proliferation by more than 80 percent, inhibited cancer cell migration and invasion, stopped the cancer cells in their tracks, and eventually killed them all off. The plant compounds did all this without having any deleterious effects on the normal noncancerous cells used as control.
No wonder the foundation of cancer prevention, based on an update of the most extensive report on diet and cancer ever published is not pills, but plants. Cut down on alcohol, soda, meat, and processed junk, and center your diet around whole grains, vegetables, fruits, and beans.