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Food to Fight Cancer, Food to Fuel Life

by Cassandra Vanderwall, MS, RD, CDE, CPT

Wellness image

Cancer treatment is a battle. The body and mind experience changes that begin with the disease and proceed through treatment and recovery. These changes include several nutrition-related alterations, such as changes in appetite, diminished ability to eat, and high blood sugar with insulin resistance. Most of these metabolic changes are caused by alterations in the body’s immune response that occur because of cancer or its treatment.

While you cannot control cancer, you can control what you eat. You can equip your body for these changes by eating well through cancer.

The right foods can help promote healing, provide stable energy, and supply strength for a better quality of life. The American Institute for Cancer Research has identified several foods with an abundance of phytochemicals that may help to combat cancer. Plant-based (phyto) chemicals are potent antioxidants that prevent and restore damage created by free radicals in the body. Here is a breakdown of antioxidant-rich colorful foods that are touted for their cancer-fighting abilities.

Food can help promote healing, provide stable energy, and supply strength for a better quality of life.

Author of Article photo

Cassandra Vanderwall

Bright green vegetables, such as cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, kale, brussels sprouts), asparagus, green peas, zucchini, and dark leafy greens are loaded with chlorophyll and indoles. Chlorophyll is known for its cleansing properties, and indoles can protect the body from excessive estrogen, which is a common culprit in reproductive cancers.

Carotenoids, found in yellow and orange foods, are associated with decreased risk of colorectal, mouth, larynx, lung, and esophageal cancers. Lutein and zeaxanthin (carotenoids) give fruit, vegetables, and egg yolks their bright yellow color, but they are also found in several dark green vegetables, too. They are powerful antioxidants that protect the eyes and skin from ultraviolet rays.

Beta-carotene is the precursor of vitamin A. Carrots, sweet potatoes, winter squash, mangos, papayas, and citrus fruits are loaded with beta-carotene; they improve immunity and maintain healthy cell activity. Turmeric and ginger are two yellow-orange spices that are nutrition powerhouses. Turmeric decreases inflammatory pathways to help decrease symptoms in inflammatory bowel disease and reduce your risk of developing colon and bowel cancers. Ginger promotes blood circulation and energy by aiding in digestion. It also may ease nausea, relieve joint pain, and reduce swelling.

The deep red color found in apples, berries, grapes, kidney beans, and tomatoes can be attributed to lycopene and quercetin. Cooked tomatoes have very high levels of lycopene, which is used and stored near the prostate. Therefore, tomatoes and tomato products play a part in preventing and fighting prostate cancer, but they may also protect the body against mouth, breast, pancreatic, and colon cancers. Quercetin, a flavonoid found in red onions, grapes, apples, berries, green vegetables (such as broccoli), prickly pears, and green tea, may decrease inflammation in digestive cancers.

Most blue and purple foods are high in anthocyanins and polyphenols, which may slow and even stop tumor growth. Anthocyanins have been deemed the most powerful of all the antioxidants and are quite abundant in several berries. Polyphenols are found in red grapes, red wine, tea, and coffee. Reservatrol, a popular polyphenol, is the heart-healthy phytochemical in red grapes and wine that is also associated with decreased risk of heart disease.

White and brown foods are often overlooked as super foods but are contenders in phytochemical activity. Garlic, leeks, and onions are high in allyl sulfides, which give them an abundance of antioxidant power – and their unpleasant smell. Foods high in these smelly sulfides have been associated with decreased risks of esophageal, liver, stomach, and colon cancers. There is also research around different varieties of mushrooms. Shiitake, maitake, reishi, and agaricus blazei murill mushrooms are high in lentinan, lectin, and thioproline, which may improve immunity and slow cancer cell growth.

Brown super foods include flax seeds, walnuts, almonds, and legumes. Most of these are high in a specific type of fiber called lignan. Lignans have been linked with suppressing digestive cancers, especially colorectal cancer. Walnuts and almonds are also high in quercetin and kaempferol, which may slow cancer cell growth. All of these brown nuts and seeds are great sources of anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids.

Nutrition is an individualized science; however, the health benefits from the foods described above remain the same. Eating well through cancer begins with identifying the foods that are best for your body. The first step toward eating well for life begins with eating better today.

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Cassandra Vanderwall is a registered dietitian and certified personal trainer who works at the University of Wisconsin Madison Hospital and Clinics as a clinical dietitian. In her current role, she assesses, educates, and counsels people on a variety of nutrition-related disease states.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, January/February 2013.