Be Well: Preventing Cancer, One Spoonful At A Time

Breast cancer survivor Kathy Dietrich chops green onions and learns about healthy eating at The Gathering Place.
Breast cancer survivor Kathy Dietrich chops green onions and learns about healthy eating at The Gathering Place.

The sound of chopping fills a spacious room at The Gathering Place, a nonprofit cancer support center on Cleveland's east side, during a recent Thursday evening.

Bright orange carrots, dark green kale and shiny yellow bell peppers are being diced and sliced by more than a dozen women as they prepare to make a healthy soup. Breast cancer survivor Kathy Dietrich chats with other women as she diligently works on some green onions...

"Well, I wanna learn how to, how to.. I guess I wasn't eating very healthy before. I'm the bad one eating all the sugar and all that stuff, that's what I like," Dietrich says as she chops. "So, I just want to learn what I should be eating because it's pathetic, this is all news to me... That this is so bad for me."

Before being diagnosed and treated for breast cancer last July, Dietrich often drank a protein shake for breakfast, grabbed lunch in the work cafeteria and for dinner.

Hamburgers, she says, are her favorite food. Spaghetti and "anything pasta" are other favorites.

But Dietrich says her cancer diagnosis was a reality check. This happens to a lot of people, says Beth Bennett, a registered dietician and nutritionist with The Gathering Place.

"There's a lot of guilt around a cancer diagnosis, especially if you read things in the media," Bennett says.

Many who are diagnosed with cancer immediately begin a search for information. They learn about the strong association between obesity and cancer. And they see reports on how eating better, moving more and weighing less can cut the risk of developing cancer and may help prevent it from coming back.

"We do see a correlation between cancer and obesity... but guilt serves no purpose in moving forward in a healthy way," Bennett says.

Cancer happens when abnormal cells divide and multiply uncontrollably. And while the cause of most cancers is still a riddle, there's mounting evidence that staying healthy can help prevent many common cancers.

Alice Bender, associate director of nutrition programs at the American Institute for Cancer Research, says "about a third of many of the most common cancers could be prevented by people making those lifestyle choices."

And if smoking was eliminated, Bender says, "many groups are saying up to half of cancers could be prevented."

The AICR analyzes studies, reviews clinical trials and digs into the evidence before posting cancer prevention recommendations. People who eat better, sleep well and regularly exercise show lower rates of many cancers such as colorectal, breast, liver, gallbladder, endometrial, and ovarian.

Still, there is no guarantee. A widely circulated article published in the journal Science earlier this year found that random mutations may account for fully two-thirds of the risk of getting many types of cancers.

Shortly after that study was released, the AICR released its own findings that Americans are prone to blame cancer on factors beyond their control, such as genetics, radiation exposure and industrial pollution.

But Bender encourages people to focus on the research findings that are validated by science and empowering.

"I think it's really exciting to know that there are things we can do to lower our risks," she says.

It's a short list: Stop smoking. Move more. Wear sunscreen. And eat more plants.

Back at the Gathering Place, Kathy Dietrich is trying to figure out what she can do to keep herself healthy. And she's game to maybe ditch the burgers as a dietary staple.

"I'm going to try," she says. "I mean, I'm not one to eat food like this so I guess I'm going to have to develop a taste for it."

If you have trouble reading the pdf above, you can also find the “salad-in-a-jar” recipe online here.

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