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Finn's Q&A - what foods help prevent cancer?

Finn Health
  • Finn's Q&A - what foods help prevent cancer?

Cancer origins, theories, metabolic disease vs genetic anomaly

First off, here's a massive, massive caveat.  This article isn't proposing any approach to treat any disease.   As with all the posts you read on our site, we are only ever here in support of your choices, be they attached to mainstream medical interventions and systems or be they more self-directed in nature.   We are not doctors. We don't diagnose treat or cure any disease. Instead, with your kind permission and understanding, we aim to support, facilitate, enable and empower your journey into abundant health.  With this in mind, this time we're looking at a potentially scary topic this month. The near epidemic that is cancer.

Only ever partially understood, our conventional medical system continues to struggle to make headway in fighting this nebulous chimera of an ailment.  Just when researchers think they're breaking ground, the goalposts shift and in response we find now that conventional cancer therapy is becoming an ever more complex treatment system reference to chemo cocktails , tailored and refined in an ongoing to struggle to pin down and destroy the mutated cells that do so well to disguise themselves in our bodies and elude the various poisons thrown at them in intensive oncological protocols.

What we're going to try to do here is not give you any programs, just a selection of a la carte options.  If you take any one of these we’ll be really happy, and if you do we are sure you’ll see trickle down health benefits that lead to a greater sense of wellbeing, hopefully with more energy, less pain, and a renewed or even enhanced lust for life.

We've come a long way since Galen proposed the theory of the 4 humours, giving some tangible (albeit maligned) form to the various diseases and the nature of disease as it moved through our physiology.  He described cancer with the 4th colour of his bodily fluids, as black bile. In stating that it was ever present in our body he was correct, but in saying that when this black bile stagnated it formed solid masses called tumours he was unable to construe with true precision the pathology of cancer.  But then we’re still struggling.

Fascinatingly when we go looking for a history of cancer it’s incredibly difficult to pick out of early surgical records.  Sure, it pops its head up in Egyptian times, and paleopathologists have uncovered mummified remains of identifiable tumours in some excavations, usually identified by the scarring and damage left behind on hard tissues like bone from the pervasive intrusion and spread of tumours.  

This lack of cancer in the historical record is symptomatic of two major factors.  Firstly, our species-old battle with infectious disease. Tuberculosis and various plagues have tended to hit us at a younger age than cancer tends to take hold.  The chances of a woman developing breast cancer at 30 years old is about 1 in 400, whereas a woman in her seventies has roughly a 1 in 9 chance of suffering the same diagnosis.  The second factor is in diagnosis. As our medical science advances we receive diagnoses earlier and earlier, increasing the overall number and pattern of identification for all forms of cancer.

Theories surrounding cancer’s pathology are various and fiercely contested.  From the theory of genetic mutation, to the metabolic theory, to that of the viral precursor.  The fascinating thing is that, as usual, humans tend to latch on to one or another and myopically defend it, refusing to lend any credence to alternate modalities that could usefully feed into evolving outlooks and strengthen our capacity for understanding, diagnosing and treating the many faces of this most confounding of diseases.


We are in the business of supporting a lifetime in health.  And when it comes to cancer prevention, like all other non-infectious disease, we need to adopt a far sighted approach to dealing with it.  When it hits, our role in a health food store is to support energy and immunity levels with good diet to allow whatever the chosen therapy is to take its course.

But we’re really much much more useful in the years before a diagnosis, when we can support your daily health regimes to help prevent “all cause mortality” and promote longevity.  And not just longevity, we want you to live an abundant, joyful, healthful life, and the cornerstone in this approach is ALWAYS nutrition. IT HAS TO BE. A body that is regularly and routinely abused - be it nutritionally, physically or spiritually - but gets a hit of high potency supplements is not a body well looked after.  And the long term health outlook is still not likely to see you come out on top with this approach. Well, nobody comes out “on top” I suppose but you know what I mean…

We know for instance that, albeit mildly debatable, the insults that trigger lung cancer start 30-40 years before the disease itself emerges.  Imagine. There are very few of us who don’t try out smoking a bit in our late teens and early twenties, and it’s SO hard when we’re that young to have a picture of our own mortality, but it really is lifetime approach this cancer prevention thing.  But we don’t want to be too morbid about this, and there’s some amazing science emerging that demonstrates the power of certain foods to accelerate our ability to cope with the toxic load of ingested and environmental toxins that put our physiology in a much better place to cope with the multitude of insults we are forced to deal with daily.

So what first?  Breakfast? Sure!  Let’s start there. Who’s heard of the inflammasome?  Well no matter if you haven’t, because you can’t see or hear it.  But you might be feeling it. It’s basically a big part of the trigger mechanism that kick starts what are called inflammatory cascades throughout our body.  And what’s been well established at this stage is the role that inflammation plays in EVERY chronic disease - so yes that’s heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, and yes you guessed it - cancer.  So why are we starting with breakfast?


When we consume fried meat for instance, we trigger this inflammatory process, so the ubiquitous Irish Breakfast has unfortunate consequences for our physiology, where the lipid peroxides (or damaged fats) that are created when cooking the meat multiply exponentially once consumed, and our antioxidant system has to go into overdrive trying to put out the fire that we started when we gobbled the bacon and eggs.  There’s a good few solid studies that back this up, but where it gets really interesting is when we introduce the idea of balance into our meal.  So imagine your fry had a small salad on the side and maybe there were a few slices of avocado on the side. Well in this one study, subjects were fed either a big greasy burger on its own, or a version which had avocado surreptitiously snuck in under the lid of the bun.  The result? Postprandial (after meal) markers of inflammation were almost nil. As though the burger eating HADN’T EVEN HAPPENED.

This is a small but powerful example of how the introduction of nutrient dense foods, that provide abundant sources of anti-inflammatory compounds can support our bodies’ response to the not-so-good food choices that may occur alongside.  Without providing an exhaustive list of the top foods, some basic guiding principles include the following -

  • Look for foods with concentrated colour pigments think of blueberries, sweet potatoes, kale and other leafy greens

  • If it’s rich in essential fats it’s a good pick. Another element of natural magic, foods that contain high levels of fats tend to also contain lots of fat soluble antioxidants as a function to prevent spoiling of their precious fatty cargo.  These nutrients also confer the same advantage once they get inside us, protecting our cells, and substances such as cholesterol from doing harm in our arteries. Good examples include oily fish, walnuts and avocados.

  • Bitter on the palette, big on antioxidants! Foods that taste bitter usually contain really important compounds that trigger a process called hormesis, basically your body treats them like mild poisons and does its best to enhance protection from damage from these foods. This results in strengthened digestive function and an a upgrading in our endogenous (built in) antioxidant defence systems which means that we become less susceptible to damage from physiological and environmental toxins - what we call oxidative stress.  

We’ve established that inflammation has a major part to play, and there are a few more dietary specifics that can help to improve our potential for long term abundant health.  Within nature there are a few superheroes that offer us over and above the level of service expected from a humble vegetable. Let’s start with every six year old’s favourite vegetable.  Is it green? Of course it is - let’s get nerdy about broccoli.


What’s so magic about broccoli?  Well I know we’ve lost our six year old audience, but I’m going to dive in regardless and hope the rest of you will follow!  So broccoli belongs to a group of vegetables known as the cruciferous family. These all contain sulphur compounds that have some well studied benefits when they get into our body.  Researchers have got especially silly about broccoli, why? Because broccoli contains a specific sulphur compound, known as glucoraphanin, which when we consume it, converts into an iso-thiocyanate known as sulforaphane, which plays around with activation and deactivation the expression of some highly important genetic pathways.  

One of these genetic pathways that it so potently affects is known as nrf2.  Nrf2 is a much studied pathway that affects over 200 different specific genes, including some that regulate our antioxidant defences and some that influence inflammation.  Without getting too much into nerd-ville, you’ll have to either trust us, or go and read the studies for yourself - our long term health and wellness could be very much associated with our consumption of foods that positively impact our Nrf2 pathway, so in this case specifically how much broccoli we manage to eat in the month!

The other well demonstrated effect of consuming sulfurous or cruciferous vegetables is their ability to enhance phase 2 liver detoxification.  So what on earth is that and why on earth does it matter. Our liver has a NASTY job. Essentially it gets fed all of the crap that we eat, breath in or put on our skin and it is charged with nearly sole responsibility for removing those chemicals, toxins, hormones and other nasties from our blood stream, disarming them and serving their marching orders through our

One important note about broccoli consumption - when we cook it we kill it.  Basically, like all vegetables, broccoli contains an enzyme that helps us to break down some of the compounds it contains.  In this case, this enzyme we’re interested in to enhance our sulforaphane levels - myrosinase as it’s known, does not like the heat.  So you can blanch it, or stir fry it even, but stick it in a bake and shove it in the oven for an hour, and you unfortunately wave goodbye to many of its benefits.  But the absolute best way to preserve the levels of myrosinase is to consume it raw. Broccoli juice anyone? Yes we do serve one. It’s called a Green Virtues, and now you know the reason it’s on our menu!  Want to further enhance your dose of sulforaphane? Well studies have shown that if you take the broccoli seed and sprout it, you enhance its content of glucoraphanin (the precursor) by many many times - to the point where you’d wonder why we bother consuming its mature vegetable cousin at all.  Well you wouldn’t really, because it’s a delicious vegetable, but from a health point of view, broccoli sprouts, and even broccoli sprout juice is where it’s at.


Okay so here’s a bite size piece on the most talked about health food of the past ten years.  Turmeric lovers of the world, let me act as your enabler - it’s so profoundly helpful for so many health conditions that we can’t not mention it in this article.  Remember the 3 points we laid out above? Well that one about inflammation is a biggie. Inflammation is our body’s response to all sorts of insults, short and long term, minor and severe.  Inflammation wears many hats, but in every single chronic degenerative, long term health condition both life threatening and not, inflammation plays some key role. Guaranteed. Staying on the right side of inflammation is like balancing on a knife edge, because we do need doses of it to keep us healthy, but it seems with the world the way it is - from chronic stimulation to exposure to pollutants in our food and in the air, that inflammation can all too easily get out of control.  And when it does, it is so so tough to reign it in. Better to keep a regular check on it.

Out of all the known inflammatory pathways - there are around 27 well documented - most drug therapies target 1 at a time.  Usually COX2 as it’s indicated in a lot of inflammatory conditions. So why is turmeric so much more interesting than a drug?  Cos it tastes great? Well, yes, but...turmeric has demonstrated effects against ALL 27 inflammatory pathways. Can we leave it at that?

That other little guiding principle in food choices that we mentioned above, the one about colourful foods?  Well turmeric fits into that category too - its vivid orangey yellow hue indicates that it’s packed with carotenoids, which means that it helps to prevent the spoilage of fats in our bloodstream, reducing oxidative stress and taking pressure off our endogenous antioxidant pool, allowing our little firefighters to turn their attention to other emergency calls in the area.


Actually let’s just talk about shiitake mushrooms.  It seems unfair to dismiss the rest of the mushroom kingdom as they do so much for us. Indeed the world of medicinal mushrooms - including maitake, cordyceps, turkey tail, chaga - is of huge interest to health researchers, as in countries like Japan, they are used both as chemotherapeutic agents and to augment other drug treatments for cancer.  But that’s not what we’re about here. This is about what we do now to prevent the drugs ever having to get into our system in the first place. If we’re making choices about what to gobble on our dinner plate, then shiitake mushrooms are HIGH on the list of immune boosting foods.  

We’ve spoken before a bit about beta-glucans in other posts, so we won’t exhaust you with detail here.  Beta-glucans prime our immune system, without sending it into overdrive. A bit like being asked to catch a ball - when sitting down, not so easy, but if you’re warned about the impending projectile, and you stand up, you’re free to move around and catch the ball even if the thrower has bad aim.  This is a little bit like what our immune system is like when it’s primed. Certain cells are activated by the beta-glucans, which sets them up to identify, attach to and eject foreign invaders in a more effective manner.

Shiitakes have more going for them than just the beta-glucans - they’re also a super rich source of vitamin D. As a hormone, in fact, and not even a vitamin at all except by name,  Vitamin D has a major role to play in modulating inflammation, which as we’re all tuned into now, is the bestest possible approach to staving off all long term health conditions. Weird fact: leave your shiitakes to dry on our windowsill and they concentrate their vitamin D levels up to 400%!!


Weird!  Yup, the black stuff - oft linked with hitting the high notes and dodging the three o’clock slump, has got a plethora of research into its benefits related to cancer prevention.  The epidemiological research that shows populations living longer if they drink more coffee doesn’t give us cause and effect links but it does seem to suggest that some coffee might be good.  For most of us. A smaller body of research has actually looked into the specific role of certain compounds within coffee that may play a beneficial role in preventing diseases like cancer, alzheimer's and other chronic conditions from taking hold.

Now before you go dusting off the cafetiere, hear us out.  Coffee is a stimulant, that aggravates our adrenals. Bad news for insomniacs.  Great news if you have a test paper to hand in 3 hours ago. Coffee works like a stimulant laxative.  Good news, for those of us who go 3 days between bathroom breaks. Bad news if you’re an IBS sufferer who always has to stay near signs for the toilet when they’re out trying to have a good time.

So there’s no hard and fast good or bad for coffee.  But one thing we do know is that constipation is definitely our enemy when it comes to fighting inflammation, so if coffee helps to kick start the colon, and you need a bit of that - then get stuck in, but be aware that stimulants are ALWAYS addictive, so keep the habit in check right?


We couldn’t leave the room without writing something on the very contentious world of the ketogenic diet and its possible role in cancer prevention.  Ketosis (the alternative to glycolysis) is the mechanism by which your body creates energy to fuel cells in the absence of glucose. Not all of our tissues can survive on “ketone bodies” alone, but over the past hundred years or so, various researchers have looked at how our body fuels itself, and how cancer cells use energy to rapidly divide, and how we might possibly starve them of their energy source whilst maintaining our healthy cells in the same instance.  This is what’s known as the metabolic theory of cancer, and there’s some really heavyweight science to back it up. But study outcomes have been furiously contested as it challenges the existing incumbent theories regarding cancer proliferation related to oncogenes (the theory that there exists specific genes that when activated trigger the synthesis and spread of tumours).

What we do know is that for certain there is a link in so far as we know how some cancers have the ability to monopolise glucose sources.  We also are beginning to discover how effective this diet can be for assisting in regulating energy metabolism in those suffering from issues with their blood sugar balance, and where a lot of work is being done, in the area of athletic performance.  What I started doing a few years ago, on the advice of our great friend Dr Rob Verkerk, was to switch my body towards “metabolic flexibility” or keto adaptation, starting to engage this alternate fuel source of ketone bodies.  I have personally found it the most profoundly helpful health intervention I have ever engaged, allowing me to access and experience cleaner, more stable energy throughout the day.  But it’s not for everybody, I understand that. Patricia Daly, who wrote The Ketogenic Kitchen with acclaimed chef and food entrepreneur, Domini Kemp, has used the diet in her personal battles with cancer, and their book gives some great recipes that allow you to start to play around with ketosis as I have.


Possibly the more important part of this message around the ketogenic diet and in our recommendations for augmenting your diet to prevent the chances of having to deal with a diagnosis,  is to emphasise how much refined carbohydrates and sugar sources are such a huge influence in any disease, and especially cancer. Not just in support of the metabolic theory of cancer proliferation, but in sugar’s myriad negative effects on our mood, our immune system, and how it feeds and accelerates so many bacterial infections and suppresses our ability to fight them.  So if you do one thing from reading this, if you have a sweet tooth, start to look to ways to curb it. Maybe that’s including a teaspoon of cinnamon on your porridge which can really curb cravings, or perhaps it’s homemaking some of Susan Jane White’s tahini fudge, or even it might mean clearing out that treat cupboard and starting from scratch.  

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