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Healthful Foods Boost Cancer Survival Rates

By Cara Liberatore

This opinion piece ran June 3, 2007 in The New Jersey Herald News.

National Cervical Cancer Awareness Month in January. Prostate Cancer Awareness Week in September. National Cancer Survivor's Day, internationally recognized and celebrated this year on June 3. Each year we go through the cycle of various cancer awareness days, weeks or months, complete with fundraisers, public education efforts and media blitzes.

High-profile cancer survivors, such as Lance Armstrong and Sheryl Crow, help keep cancer in the forefront of mainstream news. Cancer death rates are on the decline, but the disease still claims millions of lives every year. What is it going to take to save more people from this disease?

As a cancer survivor, I am concerned by how many people remain unaware that making dietary and lifestyle changes can improve their chances of preventing and surviving cancer. For me -- and millions of others like me -- every day is survivor's day, every day an opportunity to share our stories of life beyond cancer. My story involves the importance of making healthy food choices.

Statistics show that 30 percent to 60 percent of cancer cases are diet-related, which means that there are many food and lifestyle choices we can make to protect ourselves. But not enough cancer survivors are informed that they can boost their chances of staying healthy by changing what they eat. Far too many people still believe that meat, cheese, milk and other animal products are a dietary necessity. But science has repeatedly shown that a plant-based diet composed of legumes, whole grains, fruits and vegetables can help prevent cancer and cancer recurrence.

Choosing low-fat foods can make a difference. A 2005 study from the UCLA Medical Center showed that breast cancer patients in the study who reduced their fat consumption lowered their risk of tumor recurrence by as much as 42 percent. That's because high-fat foods, including beef, vegetable oils and chicken -- yes, even lean chicken -- can boost the hormones that promote cancer cell growth. But most plant-based foods are naturally low-fat and offer people a healthy way to stay slim. Maintaining a healthy weight is another key to preventing cancer recurrence.

Science is also revealing how unhealthful foods promote cancer growth. A number of studies have linked the consumption of meat, especially red and processed meat, to cancer. In fact, a recent study in the British Journal of Cancer found that among more than 35,000 women between the ages of 35 and 69, those who ate the largest amounts of meat were more likely than non-meat-eaters to develop breast cancer before and after menopause.

In August 2003, I was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 32. As an outdoor enthusiast, I was viewed as a model of health by others. I stood uncomfortably vulnerable in the spotlight of a disease that knows no boundaries and shows no discrimination. I was fortunate enough to know that staying active and eating right were going to be two of my greatest allies in my journey to wellness.

I believe that my vegetarian diet played a major role in beating breast cancer, and I believe that by spreading this message I am helping others fight this disease. I am not alone in my thinking: A growing body of scientific research supports the notion that dietary changes really can prevent cancer and increase cancer survival rates.

This is a message that every person desperately needs to hear, especially from his or her doctor.

Cara Liberatore is a breast cancer survivor and professional mountain climbing guide. She lives in Montana.


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