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Expert Speak

Diet, Genetics and Cancer

Dr. Vikram Ananthakrishnan M.S., D.N.B., F.R.C.S.

The traditional, balanced meal pattern of the Indian middle class is giving way to a meal type that relies heavily on convenience foods. Has this led to the increase in certain types of Cancer in the Indian population?

Dr Vikram Ananthakrishnan, noted general surgeon, explains the connection between diet and Cancer.

What is the role of diet in Cancer?

Diet, which is rich in fats, is a cause for Cancer of the colon and Breast Cancer:

Fat and Colon Cancer

Fats are difficult to digest. They require more of bile salts to digest them. These bile salts along with the fat come in contact with the inside of the colon (mucosa)and they induce Cancer formation. This alarming trend is now seen in our population that seems to be embracing the western diets and habits.

Fat and Breast Cancer

In obese individuals there is more conversion of Cholesterol into estrogens (female sex hormone). This hormone is one of the causative agents in Breast Cancer.

Do vegetables and fruits prevent Cancer?

Vegetables and fruits contain vitamins and antioxidants that prevent the growth of Cancer.
They also help in the immunological surveillance of Cancer (body's defence mechanism).
This is similar to the defence against infections. The immune mechanism will destroy what it finds abnormal.
They also contain fibre that helps to prevent Colon Cancer.
A high fibre diet prevents Colon Cancers because it dilutes the Cancer-causing irritant and also makes the motion move faster.

Do young people develop Cancer?

Cancer is commonly a disease of old age. It can affect the young. Especially those who carry defective genes. These genes in the presence of environmental factors cause Cancer.

How does Cancer in the young respond to treatment and what is the outcome?

In general the Cancers of the young are more (aggressive) malignant in their behaviour.
They grow very fast. But younger people withstand treatment better. The leukaemias (blood cancer) in children respond very well to therapy.

Are there any protective genes against Cancers?

There are protective genes against Cancers.

Do people with lower immunity develop Cancer?

Defective immunity is a cause for Cancer.

What is the role of genetics in Colon Cancer?

People who have polyps (outgrowths) in the colon, which is carried by a defective gene, can develop Colon Cancer. This can run in families and can be prevented by removing either the polyp or the colon depending on the type of involvement.

Screening for Colon Cancers

Colon Cancers can be picked up on doing a test called colonoscopy. Here a tube is passed through the anus after the colon is completely evacuated of all motion (faeces).

Colon Cancer’s symptoms are diarrhoea alternating with constipation, anaemia, blood in stools, weight loss and loss of appetite.

Dietary patterns have changed. Has this had an impact on Cancers of the stomach?

There seems to be an increase in the incidence of Cancer of the upper end of stomach. The Cancer of the lower part of stomach (closer to the small intestine) also called antrum of stomach is decreasing in incidence.
The Cancer of upper stomach and lower oesophagus are associated with rich diets, smoking and alcoholism. (Also called diseases of the affluent.)
These factors cause reflux of the stomach contents into the lower part of food pipe (oesophagus). This in turn causes Cancer of the lower end of food pipe (oesophagus) and upper stomach. Incidentally both the treatment and outcome of both these diseases are similar.

What causes (Antral) lower end stomach Cancer?

One of the causative agents for lower end of stomach Cancer is deep fried food; especially those fried with recycled oils. This is commonly seen in our country where we use plenty of oil say to fry puris or chips and use this same oil to fry some other food.
In medical parlance this causes increase in the amount of nitrogenous compounds and this causes Cancers.

Screening for stomach Cancers

Stomach can be screened using a test called endoscope. This is a flexible tube which is passed through the mouth after the patient has fasted for 6 hours.

How does stomach Cancer manifest?

Anaemia, loss of appetite, loss of weight, and malaise can be noticed in people with Stomach Cancer.
If the Cancer is located in the upper end it presents as difficulty in swallowing.Cancers in the lower end of the stomach present as vomiting.

What is the role of genetics in Breast Cancer?

A small percentage of people, about 3%, carry the gene for Breast Cancer. These people also have a strong family history of breast cancer.

How does Breast Cancer manifest?

It commonly presents as a painless lump in the breast. Symptoms common to all Cancers, such as loss of appetite, loss of weight, anaemia and malaise can be observed.

Screening of breast Cancer

This can be done by self-examination, by looking for painless lumps. Physician can examine these patients.
Mammogram, especially in those over 45, can pick up early Cancers.

Is there some thing we could do to prevent Cancer?

There is no surefire preventive measure. But it is good to remember the following:

  • Fruits and vegetables decrease the susceptibility to Cancer.
  • Fatty foods, especially of animal origin, are harmful.
  • Look for warning signs. Undertake regular screening for Cancer. Early detection increases your chances of control and cure.
  • Prevent environmental pollution and guard yourself against polluted environments.

Dr. Vikram Ananthakrishnan M.S., D.N.B., F.R.C.S.

Dr.Vikram Ananthakrishnan completed his M.S. in General Surgery from the Grant Medical College, Bombay and then his Diplomate of The National Board, India (D.N.B). He completed his F.R.C.S. from Royal College of Surgeons, Glasgow, U.K.

Dr.Vikram is currently an Assistant Professor in the Department of General Surgery at Sri Ramachandra Medical College, Chennai. He is also a visiting consultant at The Apollo Hospitals, Chennai. His special area of interest is laparoscopic surgery, colon & rectal surgery.

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