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Turning the Tables on Prostate Cancer

By Ron Allison, M.D.

It killed musician Frank Zappa, actor Telly Savalas, and scientist Linus Pauling. It has threatened the health of Robert De Niro, Bob Dole, and Colin Powell. And every year, it claims an army of new victims. In 2005, an estimated 230,000 American men will be diagnosed with prostate cancer.

As an oncologist, I find the prostate cancer epidemic especially tragic because it could be substantially averted. A study in the September issue of The Journal of Urology underscores that fact. Researchers led by Dr. Dean Ornish found that a low-fat meatless diet and other lifestyle changes can help keep early-stage prostate cancer from worsening. What’s more, healthy diets may even help prevent the disease from striking in the first place.

Good news, you would think. Yet a few members of the healthcare community are making a curious objection to this study and similar research. The supposed problem? Vegetarian diets are too tough to follow, these critics claim—even if avoiding meat helps head off cancer.

I don’t buy that notion. Cutting animal fat from your diet is far easier than undergoing radiation treatment or surgery. To a man facing radical prostatectomy, which often has lifelong sexual consequences, a black-bean burrito with a side of asparagus just isn’t that daunting.

It’s not only cancer patients who find it easy to adopt healthier eating habits. Our society has come a long way from the meat-and-potato fixations of the 1950s. The growing appeal of plant-based diets can be seen during a visit to the local supermarket, where more and more shelf space is devoted to meatless products for the nation’s growing number of vegetarians.

This trend is good news because the preventative benefit of plant-based diets goes beyond prostate cancer. Studies have repeatedly shown that vegetarians are far less likely to be hit by colorectal cancer, which kills more than 50,000 Americans a year. And, of course, meatless diets also trim the risk of heart disease and hypertension.

When it comes to preventing prostate cancer, individual food choices are also critical. Researchers have shown that some foods can protect men, while others make us more vulnerable. On the protective side, the red pigment lycopene has emerged as a cancer fighter. It is abundant in whole tomatoes and tomato sauce, as well as watermelon and pink grapefruit. In Harvard studies, men who consumed these foods frequently cut their prostate cancer risk by one-third.

On the negative side, dairy products have been linked to higher risk, apparently due to their effects on a man’s hormones. This evidence comes from two major Harvard studies, one including nearly 21,000 physicians and the other including 48,000 health professionals. The men in these studies who steered clear of dairy cut their risk by as much as 25 to 40 percent.

Once they understand the facts, both cancer patients and people who simply want to prevent cancer are usually willing to change their lifestyles. And the growing popularity of vegetarian diets among the general population makes such a change relatively simple.

But far too many physicians haven’t caught on to these trends. Until that changes or patients themselves decide to take the lead, we will be in the fight against prostate cancer—and other diet-related cancers—with one hand tied behind our backs. 

Ron Allison, M.D., is an oncologist who practices in North Carolina. Dr. Allison is a member of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.


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