Inflammation and Cancer: Is there a Connection?

Since at least the 1980s, evidence has been growing that inflammation can both initiate and fuel many different cancers. In fact, any chronic inflammatory disease – such as arthritis, bronchitis, fasciitis, colitis, and asthma – can increase the risk of cancer. For example, according to a 2000 study, approximately one in every ten patients with ulcerative colitis will eventually develop colorectal cancer. By another estimate, chronic inflammation may precede at least one-third of all cancers. However, it isn’t just the risk of cancer that is a concern when chronic inflammation is present. A study published in the May 2009 issue of the Journal of Clinical Oncology demonstrated that patients with high blood levels of C-reactive protein (CRP) and serum amyloid A (SAA) – two markers that indicate the presence of inflammation in the body – were two to three times more likely to die prematurely or have their cancer return than patients with lower levels.

While acute inflammation is a healthy immune system response, chronic inflammation is not. Inflammation is one of the mechanisms that initiate the cascade of molecular events that lead to cancer and promote the growth of existing tumors. If a cellular mutation is the spark that lights the malignant fire, then inflammation is the fuel that keeps the fire growing. In general, the higher your CRP levels, the more unfavorable your prognosis. Indeed, in advanced cancers, CRP levels are often the most reliable indicator of prognosis, particularly with colorectal, lung, pancreatic, and prostate cancers.

The converse is also true: controlling inflammation can reduce the risk of and decrease the aggressiveness of cancer. Most, if not all patients, are dealing with high levels of inflammatory biochemicals that are produced by malignancies, and increased by surgery, radiation and chemotherapy. At the Block Center, we measure and monitor the inflammation levels of all of our patients, who are encourage to make lifestyle and dietary changes that can significantly minimize levels of inflammation. It’s important to note that being overweight, especially with excess abdominal fat, can be particularly harmful. People who are overweight have a higher level of inflammatory compounds in their blood, regardless of lifestyle or medical history.

One of the most important ways to control inflammation is to adjust fat intake. Inflammatory mediators are triggered by eating too many omega-6s and too few omega-3s. To decrease omega-6s, avoid beef, milk, cheese, pork, egg yolks, and poultry, as well as corn, safflower and sunflower oil. To boost omega 3s, eat salmon, mackerel, herring and sardines, as well as plenty of green leafy vegetables. Use oils sparingly, and use only canola, olive, walnut and flaxseed oils.

Because refined carbs and other high glycemic-index foods – white bread, pastries, cookies, potato chips, etc. – are directly related to blood levels of C-reactive protein, the Life Over Cancer diet emphasizes complex carbohydrates, whole grains, legumes, vegetables, and fruit. Artichokes, spinach, broccoli, sweet potatoes, cucumbers, tomatoes, onions, parsley and zucchini are especially good anti-inflammatory vegetables; eat brightly colored fruits like cherries, blackberries, blueberries, and strawberries. Additional dietary recommendations are available in Dr. Block’s book, Life Over Cancer (Bantam Books).

We also suggest avoiding the following:

• Smoking
• Excessive alcohol consumption, especially hard liquor
• Unhealthy high-flame or high-heat cooking methods like charcoal grilling and deep frying
• Indoor and outdoor pollution — use nontoxic cleaning agents (avoid oven cleaners in particular) and have plenty of air-filtering houseplants
• Sleep deficit — sleeping less than four hours a night for ten nights straight can make levels of C-reactive protein soar.
• Extreme exercise – the aches and pains from “weekend warrior” syndrome are not natural or healthy; they are indications of inflammation.

For additional information about how to optimize your diet and lifestyle to help create a cancer-fighting biology, please call the Block Center at 1-877-412-5625 to schedule a consultation with one of our registered dietitians.

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