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Using Food As A Weapon

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TAMPA - Can switching your diet protect you from cancer - or cure it?

Everybody seems to have an opinion, and experts say that's part of the problem. Some say soybeans are good. Others think red meat and whole milk are bad. A recent study suggests red wine contains the magic cure and everybody's talking about low fat, high fat and trans fats.

How about yoga, acupuncture, massage therapy and detox diets, topped off with megadoses of vitamin A, C or E?

As Doreen Blanton struggled to recover from breast cancer it seemed all those questions - and answers - were coming at her at once.

"I went a little overboard, I think. I struck everything from my diet. If it didn't come from a health food store and wasn't organic, everything was bad in my opinion. I spent a fortune on supplements," said Blanton, who grew up eating burgers, not tofu.

Cancer experts think many people are rushing into questionable treatment plans.

"Some people think, well, it's natural, it can't hurt you. That's a misconception. There are very poisonous elements in nature, too," said Cynthia D. Myers, director of the Integrative Medicine Program at the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa. "We have to have respect for the natural products. Use the ones that are helpful, avoid the ones that are dangerous. I think it's a very delicate matter," she said.

At Moffitt and across the country, more cancer patients are changing their diets and using alternative medicine and herbal supplements - but often without sharing the details with their doctors.

That's dangerous, said Nagi Kumar, director of nutrition research for Moffitt's integrative program.

"We still don't have a complete knowledge of some of these supplements," she said. Some may have harmful interactions.

Kumar and Myers agree that alternative therapies and changes in diet have a place and note that the National Institutes of Health is devoting more funding to such issues. The research is in its infancy, though, and there's evidence that many people are making wrong assumptions.

Moffitt nutritionist Kathy Allen sees patients who are taking a fistful of nutritional supplements every day but aren't sure why.

"You know, I don't really know. Someone told me it was good for me," Allen recalls one patient saying.

Everything we put in our bodies has a biochemical effect, Allen said. In each case people need to determine how harmful or helpful that may be, especially for cancer patients, who are under biological and psychological stress.

"These things are selling like hotcakes - and nobody's listening to us" about the possible dangers of supplements, Kumar said.

In some ways the alternative medicine and supplement manufacturers may have taken a page from the marketing strategy of pharmaceutical companies - making the case that pills are necessary for good health.

What's needed, according to the experts, is open discussion, education and a dose of common sense about diet and alternative medicine.

Fighting Over Food

"I never let anyone know how scared I was," Blanton said of her cancer ordeal, which started three years ago.

Chemotherapy. Radiation. Nine operations. It all started when she was training for a half-marathon in the Keys.

"I'm a crazy athletic freak. My thing would be to go to the gym Friday night and not go to the bars," said Blanton, 41. "I was out there stretching and one day I felt a lump. I'm like oh, not good, it's not moving."

Like many people, she researched her illness.

"I started doing some reading, and I'm like, well, they don't really know what causes cancer. So if I can change a little bit with my diet, reduce my future risk, that's good," she recalled. But perhaps from the stress of operation after operation, things got out of control.

Blanton started thinking about moving to California and living "on a mountain with all the hippies." She began to think pharmaceutical companies rule the world.

"And I'm not a hippie. I hate green vegetables," she said.

Yet soon she was buying all-natural, all of the time. To her, it was a matter of life and death.

"My husband would like fight with me constantly about me going to the health food store. We'd have, like, drag-down fights," she said. "I'm like, 'You're not the one who was on the operating table nine times, you're not the one who got sick when you thought you were healthy,'" she said.

A few weeks ago, something snapped.

"I actually sent my oncologist an e-mail," she said. "I said I'd like to meet with a nutritionist. I think I'm getting a little out of control. And my oncologist is like, 'just eat normal.'"

Soy And Cancer

Taking control of your diet seems like a good thing, but education is crucial. Blanton's experience with soy products is a perfect example.

"Almost every breast cancer patient wants to take soy," Kumar said. "They're telling us they're doing it because they read about it."

The problem, she said, is that although there are studies suggesting that a diet with consistent, normal intake of soy-based food can help lower the risk of breast cancer, that's completely different from expecting massive doses of soy in supplement form to be a cure.

That was an especially bad assumption for Blanton.

"I'm like, I'll just do soy because it's good for me. At least 10 years I was using soy," Blanton said.

Blanton had an estrogen-receptor positive cancer, and high doses of soy may promote the growth of such tumors.

"Little did I know. I'm the anomaly - soy is bad for me."

Soy supplements pose another risk for people undergoing chemotherapy, said David Craig, a clinical pharmacist at Moffitt.

For example, antioxidants are substances that may protect cells from the damage caused by unstable molecules known as free radicals, according to the National Cancer Institute. But a lot of chemotherapy works by generating free radicals to target cancer cells, Craig said.

"You want cell death with chemotherapy," and taking megadoses of antioxidants may interfere with the treatment by essentially protecting the cancer cells.

The problem, Craig said, isn't that alternative medicine and different foods have no effect on health. The danger is that they can sometimes have too much of one - in the wrong way.

People who are skeptical of traditional pharmaceuticals and balk at the thought of taking 10 prescription drugs sometimes don't think twice about taking a handful of alternative supplements. Alternative drugs, like traditional ones, have the potential to conflict and interact with other treatments.

Many nutritionists are wary of megadoses of any supplement, especially for cancer patients, recommending instead a single multivitamin every day.

However, those who conclude that diet has no effect on cancer risk may be making a mistake, too.

Tomato products contain a substance called lycopene, and some studies have shown that frequent consumption leads to a lower risk of prostate cancer.

Also, diet accounts for about 30 percent of all cancers in Western countries, according to the World Health Organization. That's second only to tobacco use as a preventable cause.

Finding A Balance

The goal, Moffitt experts said, should be a long-term, balanced diet with regular exercise - not expectations that a handful of any kind of pill will solve everything, or fear that eating an occasional burger will doom your health.

Experts at Moffitt and those who believe in alternatives to mainstream medicine agree on one thing.

"I think people are starting to take more responsibility for their health," said Karen Newton, the manager at Chuck's Natural Food Marketplace and Cafe in Temple Terrace. Many people think they're just a number with traditional medicine, she said. "It's not like years ago when a doctor came to your house. It's impersonal."

Myers, the director of the Moffitt integrative program, agreed that patients are playing more of a role in their care. "In the last 20 years or so there's been more movement in medicine of patients becoming patient advocates for themselves," she said.

She understands the urge people have, and sees the potential benefits when changes are based on good medical information. The Integrative Medicine Program offers nutrition guidance, acupuncture, massage therapy and yoga.

Several years ago the Moffitt leadership recognized that patients were using alternative therapies and diets, and the goal is to give reliable, unbiased guidance, Myers said.

Newton said some old-school doctors don't want to think about alternative diets and therapies, but patients often try them anyway. She welcomed Moffitt's approach to bridging the gap.

For Blanton, that turned out to be the case.

She decided to go with a Moffitt nutritionist's advice and take one multivitamin a day, but she also took up yoga and was surprised.

"I would have never done yoga - give me kickboxing," she said. "Yoga, it makes me relax. I really like it."

Blanton has grown to love fresh-squeezed vegetable juice - a way to get around her aversion to cooked vegetables. She sees many of the good things about health food and alternative therapies, especially the hope they offer to take control of your own care, but has learned to be cautious.

"I think at some point the medical world and the natural world have to combine. Because people aren't going to give up that hope," she said.

Reporter Kevin Begos can be reached at kbegos@tampatrib.com or (850) 222-8382.


A car with flat tires isn't much use no matter how perfectly the engine is running, and a Porsche is just a big hunk of metal and plastic if it doesn't have gas in it.

Think of your body and diet in the same way. If you're binging on sweets, failing to exercise or drinking too much, eating soy, vegetables, fish or other good foods isn't enough. Likewise, eating beef or other meats in moderation or having an occasional soda isn't going to doom you. Your body and your diet should work together.

Soy Products

Distinguish between soy-based foods and soy nutritional supplements, and between a preventive diet and one that seeks to "cure" cancer.

For example, research suggests that Asian women with a diet high in soy have much lower rates of breast cancer than American women. But that may have come from a lifetime of healthy eating, not a sudden shift to megadoses of soy.

Soy-based foods are a good source of protein, but soy supplements can be harmful for women with estrogen-receptor positive cancer.

Nutritional Supplements

We know massive doses of ice cream or salt can be bad, but many people are confused about vitamins and other supplements.

For example, it doesn't make sense to try to put 30 gallons of gas in a 20-gallon tank. The same can be true of supplements - your body can absorb only a certain amount of any compound, and the body flushes out the excess.

Talk to your doctor and aim for long-term balance.

Red Meat

Scientific studies are backing up some of the warnings commonly heard in health food stores about red meat. The National Cancer Institute says diets containing substantial amounts of red meat may increase the risk of some types of cancer.

The association with red meat intake may be traced to a combination of factors, including content of fat, protein and iron, and/or cooking or preserving methods.

Red Wine

Research has shown that the antioxidants found in red wine may help inhibit cancer. But grapes, raspberries, peanuts and other plants also contain high levels of resveratrol, the key ingredient.

In a recent, highly publicized study, mice that were given huge doses of resveratrol lived longer even though they were on a high-fat diet. But many people overlooked the fact that you would have to drink hundreds of glasses of wine every day to get an equivalent dose.

With that much wine, you would probably die of liver disease.

It does appear that a glass of red wine every day or two may be a good idea, but again, check with your doctor.


Some studies have linked high-fat diets or high intakes of different types of fat to several cancers, including colon, prostate, lung and endometrial, as well as heart disease and other chronic ailments. Saturated and trans fatty acids are thought to be the most harmful kinds.

More research is needed to better understand which types of fat and what amounts alter cancer risk.

The 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend getting less than 10 percent of calories from saturated fatty acids and keeping trans fatty acid consumption as low as possible for general health and the prevention of chronic disease, including cancer and heart disease. The guidelines also recommend keeping fat intake between 20 percent and 35 percent of calories, with most fats coming from sources of polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fatty acids, such as fish, nuts and vegetable oils.


Herbs commonly used by cancer patients may cause interactions, the National Cancer Institute reports. Among them:

• Black cohosh may increase the effect of tamoxifen.

• Echinacea may interfere with therapy that uses the immune system to fight cancer.

• St. John's wort may cause life-threatening side effects when used with drugs that raise the level of serotonin in the brain, such as antidepressants. It also reduces the effect of certain drugs used for cancer, HIV-AIDS, organ transplants, heart disease and birth control.

Cancer Prevention

Healthy food choices and physical activity may help reduce the risk of cancer. The American Cancer Society and the American Institute for Cancer Research have developed cancer prevention guidelines that are similar.

The following diet and fitness guidelines may help reduce the risk of cancer:

• Eat a plant-based diet. Eat at least five servings of fruits and vegetables daily. Include beans in the diet and eat grain products several times daily.

• Choose foods low in fat.

• Choose foods low in salt.

• Get to and stay at a healthy weight.

• Be at least moderately active for 30 minutes most days of the week.

• Prepare and store food safely.

• Do not use tobacco.

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