Nutrition Notes

National Cancer Survivors Day®

Perhaps many of us have never heard of (let alone, celebrate) National Cancer Survivors Day® but the first Sunday in June is dedicated to celebrating the lives of those who have experienced the journey of being diagnosed and treated for cancer.  

Cancer has been an understandably feared diagnosis since its beginning, but as former President Nixon’s “war on cancer” continues to be waged, it is apparent that the power of cancer is greater than we imagined. Those who have been held in its grip know well the challenges it delivers before, during, and after treatment. Once nominated as a cancer survivor, the journey is not over for most individuals who must now face the long-term physical and/or psychosocial side effects of cancer treatment which may include heart and lung problems, bone loss, eye and hearing changes, lymphedema, and other issues. Additionally, some of the most common lifestyle complications experienced by cancer survivors include anxiety and depression, cognitive decline, pain, female and male sexual dysfunction, infections, fatigue, sleep disorders, and poor exercise compliance.

Cancer survivorship, as reported by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Cancer Institute and data from the American Cancer Society, has increased from approximately 3 million in 1971 to 13.7 million in 2012. At the surface, this may seem like a huge success; however, it must be weighed in light of the fact that the prevalence of cancer has also increased due to an aging population (45 percent of cancer survivors were 70 years of age or older in 2012) and earlier detection.

Despite advances in cancer detection, diagnosis, and management, prevention should still be the priority. Historically, nutrition has been targeted as an effective method of prevention and yet, it remains a controversial subject among experts in cancer. There may be many motives underlying this controversy, but one fact remains: it is not new. In fact, its introduction may be dated as early as the 1800s, according to some researchers, but the first science-based, institutional report on Diet, Nutrition and Cancer was delivered in 1982 by the National Academy of Sciences. It has even been said that the founder of the American Cancer Society, Frederick Hoffman, was a prodigious researcher who led many efforts to make known the relationships between nutrition and cancer from 1913 to 1943.

One line of thought proposes that the shift away from nutrition and toward the modern treatment modalities of chemotherapy, radiotherapy, and surgery was a result of a transition in identifying cancer as a local unifactorial disease rather than being "constitutional" in its origin, with a complex, multifactorial, multistage etiology. Nutrition addresses the health of the entire body, which is why a reductionist view of cancer also begins to diminish a focus on whole-body health as a preventative measure against cancer.

Despite the history, the controversy is not over. Other researchers are still advocating for an integrative approach that includes nutritional therapy in the prevention and survivorship of cancer. The International Cancer Research Funders Nutrition Working Group has identified increased cancer risk in low and middle-income countries where modern ways of living, dietary patterns, and food production have been adopted. Increased prevalence of lung, prostate, female breast, stomach, liver, colorectum, cervix, and esophagus cancers was partly explained by the direct correlation in altered dietary and lifestyle patterns to include increased consumption of highly processed foods, red meat and sugar-sweetened beverages, and increasing sedentary behavior. A recent review showed that evidence points to the efficacy of a diet that is primarily plant-based, low in red and processed meats, simple sugars, and refined carbohydrates, limits alcohol, and relies on food for nutrients in cancer prevention.

There is no question that cancer can feel like a lifetime sentence and a single day of annual recognition hardly makes up for the days spent suffering from this condition. A continued effort to prevent others from walking the path of cancer diagnosis, treatment, and survivorship seems a worthy goal for all. Further, advocating for the important (but often neglected) role of good nutrition in both prevention and survivorship is a task worthy of participation and celebration.