Have you wondered what the links are between cancer and your diet?
Do you know if nutrition has a role in your risk of cancer?
Can cancer cause malnutrition?
This article will teach you what cancer is, the factors influencing cancer development, and how nutrition can play a key role in the formation and treatment of cancer.
What is cancer?
Cancer is caused by mutations (changes) in DNA that damage cells by growing very quickly. These mutations produce abnormal cells that can divide uncontrollably, which results in the damage of the surrounding tissue. Cancer is most often associated with tumors but there are other forms of cancer. Cancer can be present in the bloodstream or the bones.2
If cancer in the body spreads from one area of the body to another, this is called metastasis. This occurs by cancer cells moving from one location to another through the bloodstream.1
It has been researched that 1 in 2 people will develop cancer at some point during their lifetime. There are over 200 different types of cancer and the most common types are:1,2
- Breast cancer
- Lung cancer
- Prostate cancer
- Bowel cancer
The different groups of cancer are dependent on the unique cells they originated from. Cancer types are mainly classified to:2
- Lymphomas: begins in the cells of the immune system.
- Carcinomas: affects the skin or internal tissues.
- Leukaemias: seen in the bloodstream
- Sarcomas: occurs in the supportive or connective tissue.
- Brain and spinal cord
For each type of cancer, the stages represent the growth (and spread) of cancer. Diagnosis of the stage of cancer can influence what treatment a patient is given and how likely will be the recovery.2
Cancer has been difficult to treat for many years but treatments are consistently improving. The two prevalent treatments are :1
- Chemotherapy: involves the use of very strong medicines capable of killing cancer.
- Radiotherapy: uses X-rays to kill cancer.
For support and guidance on what cancer is, visit Cancer Research UK.
Cause of cancer vs risk factor
It is difficult to pinpoint specific causes of cancer. The risk factors are more in action than the causes of cancer as the development of cancer can be random.
Many factors can increase your risk of developing cancer:
- Excessive alcohol consumption
- Certain medications. This can include hormonal medications such as birth control and hormone replacement therapy (HRT).
- Family history of cancer
- Previously having cancer
- Exposure to toxic substances: This may include substances such as asbestos and many chemicals.
- Excessive sun exposure
- Age: As you get older, your risk of developing cancer increases.
With each risk factor listed here, the probability to develop a specific type of cancer increases. For example, excessive exposure to the sun increases the probability of developing skin cancer. Whereas smoking can increase the likelihood of developing throat and lung cancer.
Food does not cause cancer
Some people believe that some foods can cause cancer however this is incorrect. Foods cannot cause cancer themselves, but consuming large quantities of certain foods can increase your risk of developing cancer. In the same way, food and drink described as ‘super foods’ cannot prevent the development of cancer.3
Certain types of food may contribute to increasing the risk of cancer
Processed and red meats
Some research shows that eating large quantities of processed meats and red meats may increase the risk of developing bowel cancer. Increasing your consumption of whole-grain foods may decrease this risk.3
Some of these products include:
- Red meats - Beef, lamb, pork, and veal
- Processed meats - Bacon, salami, ham, corned beef, hot dogs, etc.
Excess fats and sugars
Sugars, including refined sugars and artificial sweeteners such as sucralose, cannot cause cancer, if taken in moderation. However, consuming excess quantities of foods containing sugars or fats can cause obesity which is a considerable risk factor for cancer.3
Chemicals in burnt foods
The chemical acrylamide is present in burnt and crispy foods cooked at high temperatures for a long time. Some research suggests that acrylamide can increase the risk of cancer. However, there is no evidence to support that acrylamide can cause cancer in humans when consumed moderately.4
Cancer can lead to symptoms of malnutrition
Malnutrition happens when your body is not getting enough energy and nutrients from food to function normally. Malnutrition is a common problem caused by cancer.5
Between 30% and 85% of patients with cancer experience malnutrition and this can affect how successful treatment is, and decrease survival.6
In severe cases, when nutrition is poor for a long period of time, this can lead to a condition called cachexia. This condition changes the way your body uses and stores nutrients from food such as proteins, carbohydrates, and fats causing you to lose weight and muscle mass even when eating normally.7
Why does this happen?
When you have cancer, your body competes with cancer/tumor for nutrients. As the cancer cells in the tumor are growing quickly, they need more nutrients from the food to survive.This leads to the reduced intake of other organs/tissues in the body, thus causing malnutrition.
Specific cancers such as pancreatic and intestinal cancer can increase the likelihood of malnutrition. In the same way, treatments such as chemotherapy and immunotherapy can alter eating and digestion which can also contribute to malnutrition.7 As this happens, your body may also experience a loss of lean body mass due to the lack of nutrients available for your muscles.
What can you do to prevent malnutrition?
Maintaining a healthy and balanced diet full of protein, carbohydrates, and healthy fats is key to keeping strong and healthy during cancer treatment. Making a plan with a dietician can help maintain this diet with a diminished appetite, common during cancer treatment.7
If someone is diagnosed with cancer, it is advised to begin taking nutritional supplements to reduce the risk of malnutrition. Please speak to a GP or healthcare professional before beginning to take supplements.
Cancer is a complex and serious disease and cannot be caused by specific foods. The most prevalent factors for cancer are unhealthy lifestyle and diet, although there are many other influencing factors. Cancer predisposes to malnutrition in upto 85% of the individuals. A healthy and balanced diet is key to maintaining strength and energy during cancer treatment. If you have cancer, you may benefit from taking supplements to prevent malnutrition. It is recommended to seek help from mental health professionals since cancer takes a toll on a person’s body and mind.
- Cancer [Internet]. NHS.UK. 2017 [cited 2022 Oct 19]. Available from: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/cancer/
- What is cancer? [Internet]. Cancer Research UK. 2014 [cited 2022 Oct 19]. Available from: https://www.cancerresearchuk.org/about-cancer/what-is-cancer
- Food myths and cancer [Internet]. Cancer Research UK. 2015 [cited 2022 Oct 19]. Available from: https://www.cancerresearchuk.org/about-cancer/causes-of-cancer/diet-and-cancer/food-controversies
- Acrylamide and cancer risk - NCI [Internet]. 1980 [cited 2022 Oct 19]. Available from: https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/causes-prevention/risk/diet/acrylamide-fact-sheet
- Cancer treatment, malnutrition and nutritional support [Internet]. Cancer Treatment Centers of America. 2018 [cited 2022 Oct 19]. Available from: https://www.cancercenter.com/integrative-care/malnutrition
- Cancer treatment, malnutrition, and nutritional support [Internet]. Cancer Treatment Centers of America. 2018 [cited 2022 Oct 19]. Available from: https://www.cancercenter.com/integrative-care/malnutrition
- Cachexia (Wasting syndrome) | coping with cancer | Cancer Research UK [Internet]. [cited 2022 Oct 19]. Available from: https://www.cancerresearchuk.org/about-cancer/coping/physically/diet-problems/types/cachexia