While researchers around the world continue searching for new and better treatments for various forms of cancer, they are also finding more evidence that simple changes in diet and lifestyle can, in many cases, prevent the disease. The effects of smoking are well established, but many doctors now say bad eating habits, lack of exercise, obesity and stressful living can also be big risk factors. One researcher thinks adding a little spice to your diet could also help.
In a research laboratory at Houston's M.D. Anderson Cancer Clinic, Bharat Aggarwal has been studying the medicinal use of spices, like the turmeric he grew up eating in his native India.
Spice of Life
"These spices have been used day in and day out as a meat preservative and these spices are anti-fungal, anti-bacterial, anti-virus," said Aggarwal.
Much of his research focuses on curcumin, a natural substance used to make turmeric, a chief ingredient in curry sauces, which has been shown to be effective in reducing cancerous tumors.
While some doctors scoffed at the notion of using a spice to treat cancer, Aggarwal persisted. And now, he says, other researchers are also showing good results.
"There were at least half a dozen clinical trials that appeared last year alone on curcumin, where as little as 100 milligrams is enough to down modulate all the inflammatory bio-markers in people; we are not talking about rats or mice or anything," Aggarwal added.
But Aggarwal is the first to say that neither curcumin nor any other food provides a "magic bullet" to stop cancer. He advocates moderation in diet and lifestyle and the consumption of a variety of natural foods.
"There are 800 different kinds of food items out there, 800! An average American eats no more than 10. So variety is the name of the game," Aggarwal noted.
That is the same approach being taken by Atlanta chef Hans Rueffert, who demonstrated his salad-making skills at a recent Cancer Survivorship Conference in Houston.
Rueffert is a big believer in using fresh ingredients and borrowing from every type of cuisine.
"I think any good chef is constantly learning about different cultures, different cuisines and you sort of take the best of each one," Rueffert explained.
But Rueffert is especially interested in healthy eating because he, too, is a cancer survivor, having lost his stomach and part of his esophagus to the disease. He acknowledges the irony, but he says that also gives his message more impact.
"I know what radiation is like. I know what chemo is like. I know what surgeries are like. So when I am up there and talking about how these foods benefit you, I am not reading from some book... to know that is to live that; and I have lived that," said Rueffert.
Diet vs Gene Therapy
Bharat Aggarwal thinks investigating the chemicals in foods and spices will do more to prevent cancer than expensive research on genetic links.
"These genes are going to be with us no matter what," said Aggarwal. "So we are not going to be able to fix those, but that is where all the money is going into."
Aggarwal notes that spices like curcumin have long been known to promote health.
"The natural compound is working very well and it has been used for thousands of years and it is very inexpensive," Aggarwal added.
And expense is an important consideration as the United States faces budgetary struggles and an aging population of so-called "baby boomers" who are going to need more medical care in the years ahead.