The more I delve into research from around the world, and the more I listen to the experiences of patients, the more convinced I am of the importance of the way we choose to live our lives over the genes we were born with.
The meals we eat and snacks we munch, the hours we spend at our desks or in the garden and the exercise (or lack of) we take, over the years, has a profound effect on whether we go on to develop serious diseases — and if we do, how our bodies will fight back.
When I’m not in my clinic at Bedford and Addenbrooke’s hospitals (where I practice as a consultant oncologist and teach Cambridge University students), I am often to be found in a research clinic conducting trials into which foods or habits can most benefit patients — and everyone else.
The more I delve into research from around the world, and the more I listen to the experiences of patients, the more convinced I am of the importance of the way we choose to live our lives over the genes we were born with
I am not suggesting for a moment we abandon traditional medicine — I’ve seen too many referrals of patients who’ve refused potentially curative treatments because they opted to go it alone with lifestyle strategies only, with tragic results.
But it cannot be ignored that many diseases, including cancer, are caused or contributed to by daily lifestyle choices made over several years and cannot simply be put down to genes or bad luck.
This was illustrated by a fascinating study of the Japanese citizens who survived the initial blast of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombs 75 years ago.
Because the radiation exposure caused considerable damage to their DNA, they all had an increased risk of cancer. Yet a study published 30 years later showed that the rate of cancer among survivors differed vastly, depending on whether they had good or poor diets.
Remarkably, the cancer incidence among survivors who did not smoke, ate little meat, exercised most days and consumed lots of fruit and vegetables was fairly similar to that of the general population — suggesting their healthy lifestyle had counteracted their risk from the bomb blast.
Those who smoked, on the other hand, were ten times more likely to develop lung and other cancers than smokers who had not been exposed to radiation.
Our susceptibility to disease is inherited from our parents, but numerous factors in the lives we choose to lead can damage our cells — including chemicals in the food and drink we consume and toxins such as pesticides and air pollutants.
These chemicals either cause direct damage to our DNA or indirect damage by a process known as ‘oxidative stress’ — resulting in the build-up of harmful particles known as ‘free radicals’ in your body.
This can scramble the important order of genes in our DNA, messing up the body’s messaging system and leading cells to mutate when they divide and repair themselves. This in turn leads to cancer.
But the good news is that by choosing to avoid these hazards and by eating foods we know will protect our bodies, we can dramatically cut our risk of developing cancer. This is particularly true of vegetables, fruit, herbs and spices which are loaded with naturally-occurring compounds called phytochemicals, which have been shown to be formidable weapons in the fight against cancer and other diseases.
I’ve seen first hand the dramatic results a change in lifestyle can have on a patient’s outcome. Today, you’ll read the remarkable story of a 30-year-old woman who came to see me with so much cancer spread to her lungs and liver that they were failing.
Although she had intensive surgery and medical treatment, I’m convinced the reason she’s alive against the odds 13 years later is down to changing her diet.
Or there’s the 65-year-old man who came to see me about 12 years ago after being referred with advanced prostate cancer. He’d undergone treatment five years earlier but the cancer had returned and by the time he saw me, he’d exhausted all medical avenues. The cancer was now resistant to treatment.
Then aged 65, he had a life expectancy of three to six months – and the only option was to monitor his progress.
His wife, however, had other ideas. Having read about the power of broccoli and a diet rich in phytochemicals, she fed him a bowl of broccoli and onion soup every day.
To everyone’s joy and amazement, his tumour shrank consistently over the months and years that followed to the point at which it eventually disappeared.
I was staggered by this man’s results, which could not be attributed to any other change. If I hadn’t seen the scans and the blood tests for myself I would not have believed it.
Now, sadly, his cancer has returned again — but he’s had ten years free from the disease with a very good quality of life and is currently managing well.
He is on chemotherapy and other medication but both he and his wife are thankful for those extra happy, healthy years, which they attribute entirely to his new diet.
Although global life expectancy has doubled in the past 150 years, there has been an equally staggering rise in chronic diseases, the origins of which are strongly linked to lifestyle and diet.
The top five killers — cancer, heart disease, stroke, lung disease and dementia — are now responsible for 90 per cent of deaths in western countries.
Cancer Research UK and Macmillan Cancer Support both predict that one in two people will develop cancer in their lifetime. But of these, around 40 per cent could have prevented the disease with a healthier lifestyle — and it’s not too late to change.
This link between cancer and the way we live inspired me 20 years ago to establish a lifestyle research facility, the Primrose Oncology Research Unit, with like-minded doctors at the universities of Bedford, Cambridge, Glasgow and Southern California.
Over the past two decades we have published more than 100 papers to help patients understand their options and learn how to reduce their risks of developing cancer and to mitigate the side-effects of their treatment.
And research is pointing to the importance of reducing the amount of meat and saturated fats you eat, cutting your intake of refined sugars and taking care with how you cook your food.
The most up-to-date data clearly underlines the massive health benefits of eating a diet of phytochemical-rich fruit and vegetables, gut-friendly fibre and probiotics (the live micro organisms found in plants and fermented foods that boost your vital colony of ‘good’ gut bacteria).
Healthy fats and plant proteins are also important for optimum health along with regular exercise and good quality sleep; these all combine to help your body’s natural defences fight off cancer.
That’s why I am so keen to share my lifetime’s work in my latest book How To Live — and in this exclusive Daily Mail series of extracts, starting today and continuing next week, I will suggest practical ways based on the latest science to help you reduce your risk of cancer and other diseases by protecting your DNA and boosting your immune system.
Don’t burn toast and swap your jam for avocado: My ten surprising tips for a longer life
Life is made up of little decisions — and many of them are made without stopping to think.
But my lifetime’s experience as a senior oncologist has taught me that where cancer’s concerned your risk and your outcome can ultimately depend on how they all add up over time.
And the unlikeliest things can make a big difference — as these strange, but true facts demonstrate…
1) Did you burn your breakfast toast by mistake this morning?
It’s easily done, and if you were in a rush you possibly just scraped off the worst black bits and carried on.
It won’t have tasted all that good, but I bet it never occurred to you that it might also increase your cancer risk.
Well, I’m afraid that from an oncologist’s point of view, burnt toast is actually a no-no. This is because grilling or baking starchy or sugary foods (such as bread) at high temperatures produces toxic compounds called acrylamides which can damage your DNA and put a big strain on your immune system over time. And, as a rule of thumb, the darker brown they are, the more acrylamides they contain.
While one piece of burnt toast won’t matter, consistently eating chargrilled or baked starchy foods over time will certainly help to increase your cancer risk.
You also need to swap your morning jam (full of sugar which increases your cancer risk) and instead mash on avocado which is packed with healthy fats. You’ll find it’s more filling, too.
Did you burn your breakfast toast by mistake this morning? It’s easily done, and if you were in a rush you possibly just scraped off the worst black bits and carried on
2) Tempted to add a punnet of blackberries to your weekly shop?
They are in season but please consider heading to the hedgerows for a bowl of blackberries instead of buying them in a shop.
Although the berries are full of cancer-fighting polyphenols, (a type of naturally-occurring plant compound that scientists now know is a powerful weapon against carcinogens and damage to our DNA) cultivated berries have significantly lower quantities than those you pick in the wild.
This is because plants have to ‘struggle’ to survive in the wild – and this makes them naturally develop higher quantities of phytochemicals than cultivated varieties.
Plus, they’re also less likely to have been exposed to pesticides or environmental toxins so long as you are not picking berries growing next to a busy road.
Tempted to add a punnet of blackberries to your weekly shop? They are in season but please consider heading to the hedgerows for a bowl of blackberries instead of buying them in a shop
3) Forget to brush your teeth last night?
I don’t want to sound like your parents nagging but this is something you should pay attention to – and not just because of fillings or bad breath.
A review of over 60 studies from around the world links poor dental hygiene with cancers of the mouth and throat.
And two other studies recently analysed more than 100 samples of healthy and cancerous bowel tissue and found that the DNA from bacteria found in dental cavities was also present in bowel cancer genes – but not in normal genes.
This led researchers to believe that bacterial DNA from the mouth travels down through the body, where it interacts with the gut, causing cells there to become cancerous.
Forget to brush your teeth last night? I don’t want to sound like your parents nagging but this is something you should pay attention to – and not just because of fillings or bad breath
4) Do you avoid the sun for fear of developing skin cancer?
It’s understandable, given all the coverage this gets, but I’m afraid you do need to head outdoors to protect yourself from the risk of kidney, bowel, prostate – and even, remarkably, skin – cancer. (Yes, you did read me correctly!)
This is because while you obviously need to take care not to get sunburnt, your body also depends upon sunlight to produce 80 per cent of its vital supplies of Vitamin D.
Numerous studies show Vitamin D has direct abilities to slow cancer growth and delay its spread; survivors of bowel cancer with regular exposure to sunlight and higher vitamin D levels were found to have a lower risk of relapsing for instance.
Most surprising of all was a study involving people who had been treated for melanoma skin cancers. As the risk of this disease increases with sunburn, these patients had been told to avoid the sun after their diagnosis.
However, those who ignored the advice and continued to have regular sun exposure were subsequently found to actually have a lower risk of the melanoma spreading to another part of the body.
Numerous studies show Vitamin D has direct abilities to slow cancer growth and delay its spread
5) Are you usually a frequent flyer?
Jet setters may have found themselves grounded recently thanks to the coronavirus pandemic – but that’s such not a bad thing from a cancer point of view.
That’s because the Earth’s atmosphere acts as a giant magnetic shield, blocking most cosmic radiation from reaching our planet – but aeroplane flying exposes you to higher levels and the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) considers the neutrons in cosmic radiation we encounter at flight altitudes to be a human carcinogen.
Some studies suggest female flight attendants have an increased incidence of breast cancer because they are exposed to several times the radiation levels of ground staff. But this isn’t conclusive because they also suffer disruption to their circadian rhythm from jet-lag which can increase their risk too.
Frequent flyers are at a similar increased risk; a round trip from New York to Tokyo seven times a year might easily put a passenger above the allowable levels of exposure in medical facilities and nuclear power stations.
But the good news is you can offset your risk in other ways – such as loading up with phytochemical rich foods the day before you fly, avoiding carcinogenic foods on the flight and increasing your exercise levels after flying. (I’ll explain more about which foods to avoid to cut your cancer risk overleaf)
Are you usually a frequent flyer? Jet setters may have found themselves grounded recently thanks to the coronavirus pandemic – but that’s such not a bad thing from a cancer point of view
6) Feeling smug because you’ve hit your five-a-day?
It’s great that you’re enjoying your fruit and veg – but I believe we should actually be eating twice that amount, and numerous studies back this up.
It’s great that you’re enjoying your fruit and veg – but I believe we should actually be eating twice that amount, and numerous studies back this up
Recent research by scientists in Southern California found women who consumed more than five portions of phytochemical-rich fruit and vegetables a day and participated in regular physical exercise had a significantly lower risk of breast cancer recurrence than those who stuck to the recommended ‘five-a-day’ amount.
7) Are you a cheese lover? If so, you may be interested to know there are definite health benefits if you swap Cheddar for Stilton.
Although both are quite high in saturated fats and calories, blue-veined or aged cheeses such as Stilton have the definitive advantage of also being a good source of gut-friendly probiotic organisms, or bugs, that occur naturally in fruit and vegetables and some fermented foods and have a wide range of benefits for your gut health, reducing your chances of developing bowel problems including cancer. ..
Are you a cheese lover? If so, you may be interested to know there are definite health benefits if you swap Cheddar for Stilton
8) Do you shave your underarms in the shower? Many do and it’s an efficient way to take care of two jobs at once if you’re busy.
But if you’re a frequent shaver, do try to resist the temptation to put deodorant on immediately afterwards.
Some studies have raised concerns about whether aluminium and parabens, commonly found in anti-perspirants, can penetrate the skin, contributing to breast cancer after they were found in post-mastectomy breast tissue.
Manufacturers dispute this – and the evidence is not conclusive; more trials are needed.
Nonetheless I personally avoid using anti-perspirant most days.
8) Have you swapped potato crisps for ‘veggie’ alternatives?
You probably thought they would be healthier than regular ready-salted potato crisps but in cancer terms, I’m afraid they’re wrong.
Crisps in general contain high concentrations of acrylamides, those carcinogenic compounds produced by cooking starchy foods at high temperatures (as we saw earlier)
Unfortunately, fried root vegetables such as beetroot and carrot contain higher levels of sugar than potato crisps (and therefore higher levels of acrylamides). Some even have extra sugar added before they’re cooked. All of this puts them right up there with burnt toast.
You probably thought they would be healthier than regular ready-salted potato crisps but in cancer terms, I’m afraid they’re wrong
9) Are you always losing a battle against mess and dirt?
Many parents do – but please be reassured that from a cancer doctor’s point of view, a bit of dirt is very desirable.
Mixing with other children and having pets around is also excellent for stimulating their immune systems and helping them to develop healthy gut bacteria.
Summarising 30 years of research into the causes of acute lymphoblastic leukaemia, the Institute of Cancer Research concluded that apart from genetic factors, the biggest cause was ‘over- clean’ kids.
From an oncologist’s view, I am now concerned that one unwanted result of the social isolation required to stamp out Covid may be an increase in leukaemia or even other cancers in the months or years to come….
Are you always losing a battle against mess and dirt? Many parents do – but please be reassured that from a cancer doctor’s point of view, a bit of dirt is very desirable [File photo]