Having healthy habits would halve the number of stomach cancers and reduce bowel cancers by 37%

Photo: Clia Atset
Elisabet Escriche
Obesity and being overweight increase the risk of different types of cancers, for instance, tumours of the endometrium, oesophagus, kidney, colon or pancreas

Sunday, 4 February, is World Cancer Day

Not smoking, following a diet rich in fruit and vegetables, maintaining a normal weight, exercising regularly and not drinking alcohol or drinking with moderation reduce the risk of bowel cancer by 37%; that of breast cancer by 26% and that of stomach cancer by up to 51%, according to clinical studies. In addition, being overweight or obese increases the risk of developing different types of cancer (eg colorectal, oesophageal, endometrial, pancreas, kidney, breast [after menopause] or bladder). Sunday, 4 February, is World Cancer Day.

To minimize the risk of getting cancer, Laura Esquius, nutritionist and professor at the UOC's Faculty of Health Sciences, explains that preference should be given to plant-based foods, eating at least five portions (at least 400 grams) of fibre-rich, non-starch plant foods (vegetables) and fruit every day, increasing consumption of wholemeal cereals and pulses and limiting consumption of refined cereals. She also advises restraint in the consumption of red meat and avoiding processed meats, as a study endorsed by WHO associates consumption of this type of food with an increase in the risk of colorectal cancer. “Animal-based foods should be consumed in moderate quantities”, Esquius suggests. Another of the nutritionist's recommendations is regular exercise. It does not have to be especially strenuous. Walking briskly thirty minutes a day is enough, gradually increasing to sixty minutes at a faster pace, or thirty minutes a day of more strenuous exercise as the person becomes fitter. “There is sufficient evidence to assert that exercise protects against cancer and obesity and, indirectly, against the cancers associated with a higher risk in obese people”, Esquius says. With the move away from the Mediterranean diet and adopting increasingly sedentary lifestyles, the result, according to the expert, has been an increase in the incidence of obesity among the population, which not only increases the risk of cardiovascular diseases but also of cancer. Based on studies performed by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, the Health Sciences professor explains that, in Europe, obesity is responsible for 42.5% of the cases of endometrial cancer; 42.7% of the cases of oesophageal cancer; 31.1% of the cases of kidney cancer; 27.5% of the cases of bowel cancer in men and 14.2% in women; and 19.3% of the cases of pancreatic cancer.

“There are no foods that cure cancer”

To combat the disease, the expert states categorically that “there are no miracle foods that cure cancer”, although she acknowledges that garlic, green tea, red fruit or turmeric have beneficial health effects and recommends including them in a varied, balanced diet that also includes other teas, fruits, spices or herbs that have beneficial properties. More protein during treatment During cancer treatments, Esquius advises following a balanced diet that includes foods from different groups. And she puts particular emphasis on protein consumption, which is indispensable for coping with the treatment and repairing tissues that may be damaged during chemotherapy or radiotherapy. Thus, she recommends adding at lunch or dinner any preparation that contains fish (blue or white), shellfish, meat (preferably lean) or eggs. In their guide of general dietary recommendations during cancer treatment, the Alcia Foundation and the Catalan Institute of Oncology explain that ill people in general need to consume more protein than a healthy person, as a protein deficit may delay recovery and increase the risk of infections.

How can the side effects be counteracted

The diet and cancer expert explains that chemotherapy can have side effects, such as loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, fatigue or changes in flavour perception. These symptoms may appear just a few hours after starting treatment but usually persist for a few days. To counteract these symptoms, Esquius advises eating the highest calorie or most nourishing foods at the time of day when the patient feels most hungry. To stimulate appetite, she also recommends walking before meals, eating in a relaxed, calm atmosphere or presenting the dishes with a variety of textures, aromas and colours. It is also a good idea to have healthy, easy-to-eat food, such as fruit and nuts, permanently on view.

From fear to “I can beat it”

Just as important as following a healthy diet during treatment is looking after the emotional part and helping the patient come through feelings such as anger, sorrow, loss of self-esteem or anxiety. Mireia Cabero, a psychologist and course instructor at the UOC's Faculty of Psychology and Education Sciences, explains that when diagnosed with the disease, almost all patients experience anxiety and fear to a greater or lesser degree. However, after this first impact and once treatment has started, it is good for patients to feel hopeful and confident. “Feelings linked with hope, confidence, a conviction that it'll be all right, thinking 'I can do it or my body can do it' must prevail over the fear, anxiety, unease and worry, which are also there”, Cabero explains. She assures that “feeling positive about fighting the disease helps” and explains that there are several scientific studies that support the idea that the more emotionally and mentally positive one is, the better chance the immune system, which suffers most impact from psychological and emotional stress, has of staying strong.

Physical and emotional vulnerability

Chemotherapy can cause nausea, vomiting or chills that weaken the body. “When a body is weak, the mind is usually weak too”, Cabero highlights. To complement the medication, she explains that homeopathic treatments or Bach flowers can be given that help strengthen the body. “When the body feels strong, it is easier for the brain to generate thoughts of confidence and self-assurance”, the expert says. Family and friends also play an important supportive role and should help the patient through the worry, tears, anxiety and concerns. “When a person feels supported, he or she can unleash emotions with weeping or outbursts of anxiety. These feelings are not negative and bringing them out in the open helps release tension”, the professor explains.

Mutual support application

The new technologies have provided ill people with apps for sharing information and experiences. One of these apps is Xemio, developed for women with breast cancer who need information while they undergo chemotherapy sessions and other drug-based treatments. With this app, patients can find reliable information, record adverse effects, write comments or compare their own experience with that of other people who have gone through the same process. Cabero explains that mutual support groups usually work, but to ensure their success, they must be led by people who are in a more advanced stage of the treatment and have had a positive experience.



Laura Esquius de la Zarza

Professor in the Faculty of Health Sciences
Academic Director of the Postgraduate Course in Nutrition, Sporting Performance and Health

Expert in: Nutrition and health, sports nutrition, diet and cancer, clinical nutrition and diet therapy.

Knowledge area: Food, nutrition and sporting performance.

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Mireia Cabero Jounou

Course instructor in the Faculty of Psychology and Education Sciences

Expert in: Development of human and emotional talent in public life and in a public way: with universal policies, proper integration of social and emotional values, ethical and affectionate leadership, and with public emotional culture.

Knowledge area: Emotional skills applied in life, leadership and politics.

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