What to know about cancer
Cancer causes cells to divide uncontrollably. This can result in tumors, damage to the immune system, and other impairment that can be fatal.
In the United States, an estimated 15.5 millionTrusted Source people with a history of cancer were living as of January 1, 2016, according to a 2018 report from the American Cancer Society.
In this article, we examine types of cancer, how the disease develops, and the many treatments that help improve the quality of life and survival rates.
What is cancer?
Cancer is a broad term. It describes the disease that results when cellular changes cause the uncontrolled growth and division of cells.
Some types of cancer cause rapid cell growth, while others cause cells to grow and divide at a slower rate.
Certain forms of cancer result in visible growths called tumors, while others, such as leukemia, do not.
Most of the body’s cells have specific functions and fixed lifespans. While it may sound like a bad thing, cell death is part of a natural and beneficial phenomenon called apoptosis.
A cell receives instructions to die so that the body can replace it with a newer cell that functions better. Cancerous cells lack the components that instruct them to stop dividing and to die.
As a result, they build up in the body, using oxygen and nutrients that would usually nourish other cells. Cancerous cells can form tumors, impair the immune system and cause other changes that prevent the body from functioning regularly.
Cancerous cells may appear in one area, then spread via the lymph nodes. These are clusters of immune cells located throughout the body.
The leaves of a variety of medicinal plants can stop the growth of breast, cervical, colon, leukemia, liver, ovarian, and uterine cancer, a new study shows.
If you’ve given any thought to cancer prevention, you have probably thought about your diet. Almost every week a new trend is hitting the health food headlines. It can make it almost impossible to settle on what to eat and not eat.
But there is one diet that is consistently proven, over more than two decades, to reduce your risk for cancer. It is a plant-based diet.
Eating plant-based does not mean you can’t eat meat. It means your meals are mostly plants: vegetables, whole grains and fruits. Beans, seeds and nuts are also included.
Fill two-thirds of your plate with these plant-based foods. The remaining one-third should be a lean protein like chicken or fish, or a plant protein like tofu or beans.
It supports your immune system. Plants have essential nutrients that you cannot get from other foods. The vitamins and minerals, phytochemicals and antioxidants in plants help keep your cells healthy and your body in balance so that your immune system can function at its best.
“Plants give your body what it needs to help fight off infection,” says Andrea Murray, MD Anderson health education specialist. “A plant-based diet strengthens your immune system to protect you against germs and microorganisms.”
A healthy immune system is essential for reducing your risk for cancer because it can recognize and attack mutations in cells before they can progress to disease.
Plant foods reduce inflammation. Plants’ essential nutrients work to resolve inflammation in your body. The same tiny phytochemicals and antioxidants that boost your immune system also go around your body neutralizing toxins from pollution, processed food, bacteria, viruses and more.
“Antioxidants in plants grab all these so-called free radicals that can throw your body off balance,” says Murray. “To reduce inflammation, it’s important to eat plant-based and to listen to your body’s signals for how foods work for you.”
Prolonged inflammation can damage your body’s cells and tissue and has been linked to cancer and other inflammatory diseases like arthritis. A plant-based diet may protect you because it removes some of the triggers to these diseases.
A plant-based diet helps maintain a healthy weight. Staying at a healthy weight is one of the most important things you can do to reduce your risk for cancer. When it comes to cancer, the only thing more important than maintaining a healthy weight, is not smoking.
This is because excess weight causes inflammation and hormonal imbalance. If you are overweight or obese, your risk is higher for 12 different types of cancer including colorectal, post-menopausal breast, uterine, esophageal, kidney and pancreatic cancers.
If you eat mostly plants, you remove many of the foods that lead to weight gain. Add in exercise and you’re on a path towards weight loss.
Plants are high in fiber. Fiber is present in all unprocessed plant foods. It is what makes up the structure of the plant, and if you eat more of it you access a whole host of benefits.
Eating a plant-based diet improves the health of your gut so you are better able to absorb the nutrients from food that support your immune system and reduce inflammation. Fiber can lower cholesterol and stabilize blood sugar and it’s great for good bowel management.
Fiber is very important for reducing your cancer risk. This is especially true for your risk for the third most common cancer: colorectal cancer.
A plant-based diet reduces your risk for other diseases too. The benefits of eating mostly plants are not limited to reducing your cancer risk.
A plant-based diet also has been shown to reduce your risk for heart disease, stroke, diabetes and some mental health illnesses.
Researchers found the effects in leaves of the bandicoot berry (Leea indica), South African leaf (Vernonia amygdalina), and simpleleaf chastetree (Vitex trifolia). Three other medicinal plants also demonstrated anti-cancer properties.
“Medicinal plants have been used for the treatment of diverse ailments since ancient times, but their anti-cancer properties have not been well studied,” says Koh Hwee Ling, associate professor from the National University of Singapore’s pharmacy department.
“Our findings provide new scientific evidence for the use of traditional herbs for cancer treatment, and pave the way for the development of new therapeutic agents.”
The findings, which appear in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology, highlight the importance of conserving these indigenous plants as resources for drug discovery and understanding these natural resources.
While modern medicine is the primary form of healthcare in Southeast Asian countries such as Singapore and Malaysia, there remains a tradition of using local medicinal plants for health promotion and the treatment of diseases.
“Given the scarcity of land due to rapid urbanization and the dearth of records on herbal knowledge, there is a pressing need to document and investigate how indigenous medicinal plants were used before the knowledge is lost,” says Siew Yin Yin, who did the research as part of her doctoral thesis under Koh’s supervision.
For the study, conducted between 2010 and 2013, researchers documented the different types of medicinal plants that grow in Singapore and the region. They found that the top three reasons for using medicinal plants included general health promotion, detoxification, and boosting the immune system. Among the medicinal plants documented, people also used some to treat cancer.
The researchers reviewed the pharmacological properties of the tropical plants reportedly used for cancer, and selected seven promising plant species for further investigation: bandicoot berry, sabah snake grass, fool’s curry leaf, seven star needle, black face general, South African leaf, and simpleleaf chastetree.
The experiments involved preparing extracts of fresh, healthy and mature leaves of the seven plants, and testing the extracts with the cell lines of seven different types of cancers—breast, cervical, colon, leukemia, liver, ovarian, and uterine. The team opted to examine leaves as they can regrow without harming the plants—making it a sustainable choice, unlike using the bark or roots.
Among the seven plants, the researchers found the extracts of the leaves of the bandicoot berry, South African Leaf, and simpleleaf chastetree promising in fighting against the seven types of cancers. The leaf extracts of the seven star needle performed well against cervical, colon, liver, ovarian, and uterine cancer cells. The leaf extracts of two other plants—fool’s curry leaf and black face general—demonstrated efficacy against some cancer cell lines, too.
“What we did not expect is that the leaf extract of the sabah snake grass was not very effective in inhibiting growth of cancer cells. In our earlier study, this plant was frequently reported to be used by cancer patients in the region. One possibility could be that it may be helping cancer patients in other ways, rather than killing the cancer cells directly,” Koh says.
While the results of this study provide a scientific basis for the traditional practice of using tropical medicinal plants to fight cancer, the researchers stress that people should not self-medicate without consulting qualified practitioners.
“More research is required to identify the active components responsible for the anti-cancer effects. Meanwhile, conservation of these medicinal plants is highly crucial so that there is a rich and sustainable source that could be tapped [into] for the discovery of anti-cancer drugs,” Koh says.
Evidence of anticancer benefits in 5 plants
The team focused on seven plants that people have used as traditional medicines for cancer. They were:
• Bandicoot Berry (Leea indica)
• Sabah Snake Grass (Clinacanthus nutans)
• Fool’s Curry Leaf (Clausena lansium)
• Seven Star Needle (Pereskia bleo)
• Black Face General (Strobilanthes crispus)
• South African Leaf (Vernonia amygdalina)
• Simpleleaf Chastetree (Vitex trifolia)
In the study, the team prepared extracts of “fresh,” “healthy,” and “mature” leaves from these plants and examined their effects on cells from breast, ovarian, uterine, cervical, leukemia, liver, and colon cancers.
Bandicoot Berry, South African Leaf, and Simpleleaf Chastetree had an anticancer effect against all seven types of cancer, according to the researchers. Fool’s Curry Leaf and Black Face General also had protective properties against some cancer cells.
Interestingly, the team found that Sabah Snake Grass was not effective at preventing the growth of cancerous cells, despite many people with cancer in the region using it.
The authors hypothesize that people commonly use Sabah Snake Grass as a traditional medicine because it offers some kind of benefit to people with cancer other than killing cancerous cells.
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