The Benefits of Plants in the Fight Against Cancer

Food, being a locus of control for most, is a potential space for hope. Indeed, while the topic of food choice impact on cancer is complex and difficult to study, evidence, as reported by the World Cancer Research Fund, suggests that a diet high in plant foods can offer cancer protection. The American Cancer Society and the World Health Organization, along with their counterpart organizations, recommend a diet high in a variety of fruits and vegetables for prevention of cancer.

With a lead hypothesis being that some plants contain certain cancer-protective substances, it stands to reason that some plants would be more beneficial than others. The World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) International pooled evidence in an Expert Report demonstrating evidence supporting, for example, fruits and non-starchy vegetables as preventive for mouth, pharynx, larynx, and esophagus cancers, allium vegetables as preventive for stomach cancers and colorectal cancer, and foods containing lycopene and selenium for prostate cancer.

We routinely recommend a diet that is high in plants with a variety of colors, weighted toward foods that are anti-inflammatory and high in natural antineoplastic chemicals. This type of diet not only helps the patient to maintain a healthy weight and strengthen the body as its unwelcome visitor, cancer, is being targeted with treatment but also prepares the patient for survivorship preventing future cancer as well as cardiovascular disease.

Botanicals are a hot area of research, with promising potential, and we can make use of what we know now, starting in the common kitchen! For patients who want to tap into this reservoir, we often recommend a book by Rebecca Katz and Mat Edelson, The Cancer Fighting Kitchen, as a resource.

Cancer is a life-changing event. It is a diagnosis that, when received, or even pondered, often invokes desire for control and can be a powerful stimulus for adoption of behaviors that are supportive of health. This can be a good opportunity for joining with a patient or loved one to explore the mystery and healing potential of plants.

A colorful, plant-based diet can be made more robust with botanicals that have current evidence for chemoprevention, as detailed in Integrative Oncology (Weil Integrative Medicine Library), including garlic, quercetin, and curcumin. Garlic demonstrates apoptotic and immune modulating activity, has epidemiological evidence to support prevention in several types of cancers, and can be easily, safely, and deliciously added to cuisine. Garlic pairs well with onion, a great source of quercetin, which demonstrates anticancer activity and appears to reduce incidence and mortality from several cancers as part of the diet. Curcumin, a main component of curry, with a growing body of evidence demonstrating desirable effect on carcinogenesis, can also be added beautifully, along with it’s glowing orange hue, to culinary creations.

Green tea, consumed throughout Asia for thousands of years, makes a lovely addition to a healing diet. This plant shows potential as a chemopreventive and antineoplastic agent, interfering with multiple steps in carcinogenesis. Consumption of green tea can be a healthy ritual and also counters cancer-related fatigue.

Aside from direct anti-cancer effects, the plant kingdom often provides solutions for cancer and treatment related symptoms. Ginger is useful for nausea. Senna, prunes, and psyllium are great for constipation, and pectin-containing foods are useful for diarrhea. Vibrant seasoning such as oregano, rosemary, and thyme can curb dysgeusia.