November 16, 2009

Secrets of Preventing Cancer and Building Your Bones

Does the title of this post lead you to think that there's one simple thing you can do to prevent cancer and keep your bones strong as you grow old?

Sorry about that. It's actually two different "secrets"--the reason they're crammed together in one post is that I was reading the New York Times health section, and these two articles about preventing cancer and building healthy bones both caught my attention.

Note: whenever I discuss health articles from the New York Times, sensitive readers should be warned--there will likely be cursing involved.


Because while the New York Times is a great source for news, I hate their health section. They're the ones, remember, who said exercise won't keep you healthy. And their writers seem to revel in casting doubt on my long-held beliefs about the rewards of proper nutrition and plenty of exercise.

If the New York Times were my only news source, I'd be on a cupcake, cheeseburger, and champagne diet by now, and the only exercise I'd get would be scratching my head over their crossword puzzles. Sometimes the studies they cite are convincing; other times they seem to ignore tons of contrary research in order to take a controversial stand and get people riled up. Either way, I find it annoying to have to rethink things all the time. I have a tiny brain and it gets tired easily.

So wanna know what surprises they had in store about preventing cancer and building bones?

Preventing Cancer: Forget Healthy Living

Yep--they say that eating less fat and lots of fruits and vegetables and whole grain fiber, losing weight, and getting lots of exercise won't really do much to prevent cancer. In terms of healthy living, the only lifestyle choice things they had good things to say about were quitting smoking and, if you're a woman, steering clear of estrogen after menopause. (Well, I imagine if you're a guy you should steer clear of it too).

The fruits and vegetable thing took me by surprise, and elicited the most cursing. I'm certain I've read a number of studies saying that whole grain fiber and fruits and vegetables help prevent cancer. The fiber clears out your digestive system, and the produce is full of all those nifty little antioxidants that will clean up evil free radicals that contribute to cancer. Right?

Well, turns out it's not just the New York Times--everyone seems to be backing down on the diet and cancer connection. As to the ability of antioxidants in fruit and vegetables to prevent cancer--the clinical results now look "inconclusive," according to The National Cancer Institute. Likewise, the Harvard School of Public Health says you should eat your fruits and veggies, but mainly because they're good for heart disease, blood pressure, vision, and gastrointestinal problems like constipation or irritable bowel. As to cancer, "data from cohort studies have not consistently shown that a diet rich in fruits and vegetables prevents cancer in general."

Well, phooey.

What can prevent certain kinds of cancer? Medicines!

According to the article, a generic drug, finasteride, costing about $2 a day, could prevent as many as 50,000 cases of prostate cancer a year. A related drug, dutasteride, (about $3.50 a day), has the same effect.

Likewise, according to the Times, studies have found that taking tamoxifen or raloxifene could cut breast cancer by 50% among high-risk women. Most side effects of the drugs, like hot flashes, were temporary. There was a very slightly increased risk of blood clots and uterine cancer with tamoxifen, but with raloxifene there was no excess uterine cancer, and the clotting risk was 30 percent less than tamoxifen.

Even better, women did not have to take the drug for a lifetime — just five years. And they said the cost for tamoxifen runs about 30 cents a day; raloxifene is $3.30 a day.

So why would doctors and high-risk patients not be jumping all over this to try to prevent cancer? Well, the Times interviewed Dr. Therese B. Bevers, a medical director at a Cancer Prevention Center. She believes that doctors don't want to take the first step — calculating a woman’s lifetime risk of getting breast cancer. Why not? Because that might lead to the next step: "spending an hour or so discussing cancer risk and drug risks and benefits."

An hour or so? Really? When was the last time your doctor spent an hour or so explaining anything? I can't believe doctors can't figure out how to give a brief overview of options in a much shorter time than that. And if it would prevent so many more cases of breast cancer, wouldn't the time be worth it?

Apparently the drugs are a good idea if your lifetime odds exceed 20 percent. (They use the example of a 55-year-old woman who began menstruating early had her first child late, and whose mother and sister got breast cancer. There's an assessment tool here, though they warn you it's designed for medical professionals.)

Equally puzzling, though, is the reaction of high risk patients when doctors do discuss the drug option. According to Bevers, about half the time they turn them down. “The Number one reason I hear is, ‘Oh, I just don’t like to take medications."

Personally, if my risk of breast cancer were calculated to be significantly higher than nomal? I think I'd give the medication a shot.

But no matter what the New York Times says, I'm not entirely giving up on the idea that my bok choy and blueberries and cardio are gonna help me out too.

How to Prevent Bone Loss? Jump!

So the article on exercise and bone loss starts with a disconcerting statistic: a year after fracturing a hip, about one in five people over age 65 will die.

Yikes! I guess I'd really rather not fracture my hip when I'm older.

There is more depressing news, too: a lot of the exercise people used to think would help isn't doing much to build bone density. You need “large forces released in a relatively big burst.” Apparently weight lifting isn’t explosive enough for most people, nor is swimming or cycling. Running can be, although it doesn't work for everyone. Brisk walking helped bone density in older women, but "it must be truly brisk."

What works, they suggest, is jumping--if your bones are strong enough to begin with. “You probably don’t need to do a lot either.” But this recommendation came from... you guessed it. A study of mice.

Oh wait, not that kind of mice...

It seems that in a Japanese study, mice jumped 40 times a week for 24 weeks and built up bone density, and maintained it by jumping 20 or 30 times a week. (I did not allow myself to discover how they got the mice to jump...I hate animal research and think we should do a lot less of it.)

Anyway, six jumps a day, then down to three or four. Sure, I could add that to my exercise to-do list. And maybe I will someday, if I became convinced that I'm one of those people for whom running doesn't work, and I decide I really need to start jumping too to build my bones.

But just because it worked for mice? At this point, I'm not exactly jumping to any conclusions about humans.

So would you take prescription drugs to prevent breast or prostate cancer if you were high risk? Would you jump up and down like a Japanese mouse to build your bone density?


  1. Sorry. Just don't buy it. Somewhere there's got to be a connection to a pharmaceutical company. What would we expect a drug co.'s research to say?
    Dog forbid we should take responsibility for our own health when we can let Big Drug look after us for only pennies a day.
    umm...okay... sorry... tangent averted.

  2. I wonder where the drugs came from...could they be a plant derivative? Something possibly also found in vegetables? If I was high-risk, I would try...I'd like to know more about it though.

    Funny about the jump-thing...I was going to add jump-roping to my regular exercises today...still am. I've had this rope for 20ish years...never used it. Lately, it just keeps looking at me. I am just going to do a minute a day.

  3. Gina, great idea about the jump-roping!

    I tried it and I'm a spazz--got too frustrated. If I do start jumping, it will be done without the help of any ropes!

  4. That sounds like some funky journalism right there.

  5. P
    it's the answer to all that ails ya (if what ails ya is being unable to laugh at your own d*mn self. Im not sure it helps prevent cancer or even strengthen the bones)

    Im cynical like Leah.
    its all tied into the pharm.industry.

  6. You guys think the NY Times writers have been bought out my the pharma industry? I'm always up for a good conspiracy theory; nothing surprises me anymore.

    But I naively keep reading and keep trying to apply their conclusions to my own life...

    (Going for a run and plan to jump up and down at the end, just for insurance...)

  7. I'm totally cynical about the drugs not the fruits and veggies. Yes, they may help more -because they are concentrated elements from plant sources.

    Interestingly enough I was just diagnosed with osteopenia. I do the kind of weight-bearing exercises that they say should help. However, I never jump/bounce/hop/etc. After I talk with my doc tomorrow -about whether I should increase my vitamin D- I will be adding some plyometrics -hopping- to my exercise regime.

    As a side- hopping on your non-dominant foot is great for building stronger brain connections..

  8. For 5 years, yeah I would take a drug that would reduce my risk of cancer assuming the side effects were not too nasty.

    Would jumping jacks do it? I could do a few jumping jacks every day.

  9. These NYT articles are messing with our minds.

    If drugs really were the answer to prevention, I still would be reluctant to take them given the side effects. Blood clots? Uh, no.

    Sometimes, it's a matter of trading one form of death for another. None of us are immortal and the end is gonna come. Well, except for my husband, who believes nanotechnology will develop in time for him to reattach his head to a new body. Yeah.

  10. I like the jump roping idea - kills two birds with that one (cardio AND jumping) but not sure I would jump on the pill bandwagon unless I had a ton of family history for those diseases.

    Very disappointed to hear (now that I'm actually eating healthily!) that fruits and veggies do nothing to help prevent cancer.

  11. If you want stronger bones, you must eat saturated fat. "Saturated fat is required for calcium to be effectively incorporated into bone."
    - Dr. Eades on 7 Reasons to Eat More Saturated Fat

    And - if you want to reduce your risk of cancer (including breast cancer), reducing carbohydrates is the most effective treatment.

    "New research shows cancer caused by carbohydrates, sugars, white flour, and corn syrup"

  12. I'd be jumping my way right over to the drug store. Nice of the NYT to tell us that all that healthy living really isn't that healthy for us. Hmmmm....wonder why their circulation keeps dropping.

  13. I am on my third year of tamoxifen, (post breast cancer) two years left. As I don't have the information pamphlet close to hand, this is my experience. It kills your estrogen, meaning it puts you into menopause and gives you hot flashes. Not a problem for me as I was starting down that road anyway, but what about someone in their 30's who can still have kids if they want them? Of course, killing your estrogen leads to bone loss :)

  14. The thing is, sometimes you are just predisposed to cancer. I wouldn't take something like tamoxifen if I was high's for treating those who are diagnosed and it puts you into menopause early by shutting down estrogen, which the breast cancer needs to grow...
    Exercise and eat healthy.
    If you are predisposed or hight risk, make sure you get checked, even every 6 months if necessary. My dad is high risk for prostate cancer - his dad and 2 brothers died of it. He tried to look after himself but he just gets checked every 4 months by his that if he ever (god forbid) does come down with it, he will catch it realy.
    I think we have enough chemicals and additives in our lives to try and get out of our diets and homes...we don't need to jsut take more chemicals. Especially if we aren't sick yet.
    If it ain't broke...sont' fix it.

  15. If I was truly at high risk, and the cost was truly minimal ($2 a day is not minimal. 0.30 is better), I'd probably seriously consider it.

    I love to jump rope, so jumping up and down is a pretty regular thing when I'm in my normal workout routine. Soon to be making a comeback...

  16. It's ironic how these 'studies' come along just about the time that new applications for drugs get approved... No, I wouldn't take the drugs. I would continue to eat a balanced diet, including fruits, veggies, grains, etc. and exercise.

  17. I participated in the breast cancer prevention trials that gave thousands of us either Tamoxifen - 1/2 the dose given to prevent recurrence - or a placebo. I swallowed the pills for five years & shortly after I finished, learned that the trials had been stopped early. No, don't leap to that negative conclusion. It had nothing to do with side effects. It was stopped because at the Tamoxifen group had at least 1/3 less occurrences of breast cancer than the control group. It was a clear success.

    I was then told that yes, I had been taking Tamoxifen. Side effects? A few irregular periods. I was 41 when I began the process. After I stopped, I went back to normal cycles for several years. They stopped pretty much when I would have expected them to (at about age 52).

    As a woman whose mother had breast cancer twice, sister once, paternal grandmother once, & two maternal great aunts died of it, I have a hard time understanding why more women don't choose this option, and why it is not more widely talked of.

    As the NYT article said, we don't think twice about preventive medicines for heart disease (blood pressure, cholesterol). I am no great admirer of our pharmeceutical companies, but if it were up to them, these pills would be far more widely taken. Seems unlikely they are somehow behind this.

    Oh, a little side note? While I took the Tamoxifen, I was measured regularly because there was a possibility it helped prevent bone loss. For what it is worth, I am now 58 and have not lost any height. And my bone mass is estimated to be higher than that of the average 30-year-old.

  18. Thanks for all these thoughtful comments, especially Anonymous & Reb for sharing their personal experiences taking tamoxifen! It really helps to get some "real life" data.

  19. Crabby, I love how you call out NYT & the rest of them but give all sides of the story. What always scares me is they tell us one thing & then 10+++ years later, they say they were wrong! How many times has that happened!!!

    Me, like you, I am sticking with my healthy eats & exercise. I do jog & I do plyometrics as well so I guess I am covered there.

    I would take a med if I was HIGH risk but the med industry is so far up the butt of so many companies & politicians that I don't believe a thing they say anymore! Sorry for that reference but that is how I feel.

    Jeez, the healthcare right now is go take some meds cause we don't have time for you.

    I really appreciate this well thought out & informative post!

  20. Great analysis of the two articles. Just wait a week... there will be another study talking about how great fruits and veggies are to longevity (which must include not dying from cancer, right?).

    I'm not so keen on following advice from mice studies, especially exercise ones, but I've read other research that says jumping is good for the bones. With my bad knees, though, jumping is definitely out! I'm sticking with strength training, calcium and vitmain D. My husband had osteopenia in his hip (yes, men can get osteoporosis!) so I'm trying to get him to do some high-impact activities, too.

  21. Like some other people who responded I think there has to be a connection to a drug company with that study. Sorry but I just don't trust drug companies since they are out trying to make money. So no I wouldn't take the drugs if I was high risk and I'll stick to my healthy diet and fitness routine.

    As far as jumping I already do with my activities so my bones must be good.

  22. Balderdash. Once the diet "is no good at preventing cancer" pile of studies outnumbers the diet "prevents cancer" pile, then I will consider eating like a pig again. Until then, and I suspect that day will never come, I will eat my lean meat, my veggies, and go easy on the goodies.

    Barb, the habitual skeptic

  23. I agree with the above. If it wasn't done by the pharm co then the researchers were funded by them.

    And, how long was the cancer study again?
    I just have a hard time being a believer.

  24. If a drug was proven to prevent cancer, and I knew I were high-risk, genetic predisposition or relatives having the same and dying, I might risk taking the drug. I'd rather take a drug to prevent chemo, than do chemo.
    Aren't the statistics on cancer, 1 in 3 people will be affected? In the meantime, I'll keep drinking my spinach that's funded by the Vege conglomerates and taking supplements that are funded by supplement conglomerates.

  25. While I may be recalling an inadequate NYT article, I thought I read somewhere that there is a link to being overweight/obese in women and breast cancer because body fat stores estrogen. Eating fruits and vegetables may assist in weight loss ergo does this not possibly assist in cancer prevention?....

  26. I think the NYT is running its own experiment: How much contrary advice can we give our readers before they, in the words of the late, great, Douglas Adams, just give up and go mad?
    I'm also quite cynical about the whole don't-bother-to-eat-well-just-take-expensive-prescription-medication theory. Think I'll stick to my fruits and veggies.

  27. No and no. Short winded today.

    Great post. Thought provoking.

  28. I heard a biologist speak last night at a science cafe, about the biology of aging, and his take on this, is that most biology/science news you hear is oversimplified and not quite true. He likes Scientific American, considers almost all the rest to just be soundbytes. He studies the biology of aging, and had opinions on raw food, smoking, ineffective medical research, telomeres. Anyway, lots of classes at the gym make us jump, it's kinda fun.

  29. I will continue to eat my "natural" food, including fruits and veggies (although I fear that a lot of them are grown with things I'd rather not know about) and try to get some exercise and hope for the best!

    I'd really rather not take drugs if I can avoid it.

  30. I'd like to suggest the vaginal sling procedure? For those of us that had 10 lb babies vaginally - just so we don't pee all over ourselves with all that jumping.


    UR welcome.

  31. Count me in with those who think the pharmaceutical companies bankrolled that study. :P

    I try not to take pills unless I really have no other option. I just think that as a society, we're overmedicated.

  32. Oh! Also, if jumping is so good for you - bust out the hopscotch! (I'd totally link to Miz's post yesterday here, but don't know how to do that in a comment.)

  33. don't discount that link to uterine and other cancers either. My mom had breast cancer detected early and the lump was removed and she had radiotherapy. Followed by 5 years on tamixofen. About 4 months after the end of the 5 year period, she started getting abdominal symptoms which turned out to be stage IV ovarian cancer. This one, in spite of many operations, chemo, the whole 9 yards- including a period of about 6 months of remission which gave us all hope-, she did not survive. Not saying that you should not take the drugs if breast cancer has been diagnosed- but I'd be wary of taking it "just in case".

  34. oh and the thing about fruit and veggies is probably confusion between "no evidence of a positive effect" and "evidence of no positive effect" (I have just re-read the Black Swan in which Nassim Taleb talks about this). It is hard to get actual scientific evidence of any positive effect of a healthy varied diet, because it does not lend itself easily to a controlled clinical trial- there are too many variables and the studies there are rely heavily on people reporting what they eat. But that does not mean there is no effect.
    I'll stick to the veggies

  35. Thanks for the input, Jane--and so sorry to hear about your mother!


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