Tracing the link between food and cancer

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When a neighbour pulled Maryam Adamu’s milk tooth at age 8, she thought she would grow into her permanent teeth. 

A tumour came instead. Eighteen years later, the mass has taken over half her face. Her big question now is whether the mass is cancerous.

Her doctors in a medical report from Jos University Teaching Hospital called it a persistent jaw mass and would require “extensive maxilla-facial surgery”. 

A separate set of medical plan from India hospital took just a scan of her medical report and front and side shots and came back with two options for treatment: first, a set of 11 investigations lasting three to four days and costing $1,150; second, three cycles of chemotherapy at $3,150 a cycle.

She has cause to be worried whether she caught her condition on time, if indeed it is cancerous. Experts think many cancers are caught too late when there is little time to do anything.

Adamu is getting questions about what foods she takes. Many should be there, considering mounting evidence that food and lifestyle are great factors when it comes to who gets cancer and if or when.

What you eat and how you live your life does matter when it comes to cancer, evidence suggest. The World Health Organisation says research to date has uncovered few definite relationships between diet and cancer risk. Top on the list are overweight, obesity, a high consumption of alcoholic beverages, aflatoxins and some forms of salting and fermenting fish. They fall into the category “convincing”.

Physical activity decreases the risk of colon cancer, WHO adds. Factors like high intake of preserved meats, salt-preserved foods and salt “probably” increase risk.

To be sure, cancer comes from one single cell. The transformation starts from a lesion that goes from pre-cancerous to malignant tumours. But the changes are the result of interaction between your genetic factors and carcinogens-external factors that can induce cancer.
Physical carcinogens include ultraviolet (UV rays that can cause damage to albino skin) and ionizing radiation.

Chemical culprits include asbestos, tobacco smoke, contaminants in food and arsenic.
Biological carcinogens extend from infections by certain viruses to bacteria or parasites.
So what are the culprit foods and why should you be wary?

Canned tomatoes: 
The concern is that almost all food cans are lined with the chemical bisphenol-A, which studies from 2013 have shown affects the way genes work in the brain of rats. Regulators agree BPA poses a problem and are looking to either replace it or minimize the amounts found in canned foods.

The high acidity of tomatoes seems to cause BPA to leach from the can lining into the tomatoes. 

Food faddists can avoid cans altogether and cook fresh or buy glass bottles.
Soda pop: You might know them as mostly fizzy drinks, but their large sugar content can cause your blood sugar to spoke, which can cause inflammation and insulin resistance. They worsen present stomach ulcers, but the most concern is the artificial colourings and food chemicals like derivative 4-methylimidazole.

Processed meats: 
Your sausages, hot dogs, bacon and lunch meats are good, but the excessive salts and chemicals used to process them can damage your health.
Sodium nitrate might make your sausages look glossily appealing, but it is a known carcinogen. Smoked meats pick up tar, too-and, yes, the same tar in cigarette smoke.

Microwave popcorn: 
Pop a bag in your microwave and you get your popcorn. microwave popcorn bags are lined with perfluorooctanoic acid, also found in your non-stick cookware. And one study has linked exposure to the acid with significant increase in risk of kidney, bladder, liver, pancreas and testicular cancers. As for the corn themselves, manufacturers don’t have to tell you the kernels in the bag are genetically modified or soaked in preservatives like propyl gallate, a chemical that causes stomach problems and skin rashes. 
Potato Chips: 
Cheap, great and easy, but their high content in fat and calories pile on the weight while excessive salt may not be good for you. High-temperature frying makes chips crispy but also allows them to make a material called acrylamide, a known carcinogen that is also found in cigarettes. You might want to try boiling or baking your potatoes.

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Hydrogenated oils:
Don’t get confused, they are vegetable oils, but are chemically extracted from their source-like soybean-and often deodorized and coloured to look great. They are used in preserving processed foods, keeping them glossy as long as possible, but hydrogenated oils can influence the structure and flexibility of cell membranes, which is linked to cancer.

Foods that are highly salted, pickled, or smoked: Nitrates or nitrites preserve and colour meat. They do not cause cancer themselves but can change into N-nitroso composites under certain conditions once inside the body. N-nitroso is associated with a greater increase the risk of developing cancers. Smoking food allows it to pick up tar, a known carcinogen. Pickled foods are high in salts.

WHO’s 2002 “Diet, nutrition and the prevention of chronic diseases” report, advises moderate consumption of preserved meat to reduce the risk of cancer. 

Last month, a review by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, caused a stir: it doesn’t ask people to stop eating processed meats but indicates that reducing consumption of these products can reduce the risk of colorectal cancer.
Refined Sugars: 
Cancers seem to have a sweet tooth, and refined sugars are yummy for them, thus promoting their growth. They rather like fructose-rich sweeteners like high-fructose corn syrup, which is metabolized by cancer cells most quickly and easily. The same sugar can get in cakes, pies, cookies, sodas, juices, sauces, cereals, and many other extremely popular, mostly processed, food items are loaded with refined sugars. Does that help explain why cancer rates are on the rise these days?

Artificial Sweeteners: Many use them to lose weight or keep from sugar, if they are diabetic. But chemicals in artificial sweeteners, especially aspartame, break down into toxic DKP, which your stomach processes to produce other chemicals can cause especially brain tumours.

Diet Anything. 

Foods labelled as “diet” or “low fat” generally contain aspartame, an artificial sweetener. “Diet” means food is chemically processed and made from super refined ingredients, excessive sodium levels, as well as artificial colors and flavors to make it taste good. 

Alcohol. 
A lifestyle of alcohol, along with tobacco, is a risk factor for cancers of the oral, cavity, pharynx and oesophagus, and is cause for 60 per cent of them in developing countries, according to WHO. Alcohol use is the second leading cause of cancer, right behind tobacco use. 

In evidence regarding both from 27 different studies, the IARC found sufficient evidence to state that excessive alcohol use is the main cause of mouth, esophagus, liver, colon, mouth, rectum, and female breast cancers.

Red Meat:
Meat is good-grass-fed beef contains conjugated linoleic acid that actually fights against certain cancers. But even small amounts of red meat every day could increase a man’s risk of dying from cancer by 22 percent and a woman’s chance by 20 percent, according to one 10-year study. A lot of it increases risk of breast, prostate, and colon cancer.

Non-organic fruits: If they are non-organic, they are probably contaminated with pesticides, organophosphates and high nitrogen fertilizers. 

Conventional foods are also subjected to chemicals to make fruit and vegetables grow bigger. Think of your glossy apples, smooth bananas and big, shiny oranges, strawberries and grapes. Washing them doesn’t get off residues 100 percent.

Filtering through the clutter
The food and cancer link is complex. Research and risk factors affected different geographies differently, and many other factors come into consideration.

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