Reducing the risk of cancer with a healthier diet

by Jennifer Bowden / 01 September, 2012
A healthier diet could prevent a third of our cancer cases.
Murray Dixon, who was diagnosed with bowel cancer in 2011 believes that a healthier diet can reduce your risk of getting cancer

Good news about cancer is hard to find, but here it is – our cancer death rate fell by more than 16% between 1999 and 2009, thanks to earlier diagnosis and better treatment. Although that’s positive, a 16% reduction in people developing cancer would be even better. Sadly, though, the number of people who received a cancer diagnosis declined by only 3% between 1999 and 2009, from 355 to 344 per 100,000 population. This is ironic, really, because cancer is largely a preventable disease predominantly caused by environmental factors. It’s estimated a healthier diet could prevent a third of cancer cases, for instance. “People aren’t interested in preventing anything until they’ve got it. Then they’re interested,” says Murray Dixon, who was diagnosed with bowel cancer in January 2011.

Colorectal cancer is New Zealand’s second leading cause of cancer death. Dixon’s bowel cancer had already spread to his lungs and he was given 12 to 18 months to live. He spent most of 2011 having chemotherapy and radiation treatment. The diagnosis motivated Dixon to overhaul his lifestyle. “When you’re told you’ve got cancer and you’ve only got 18 months to live, that’s all the motivation you need to change, because if you don’t change, you’re going to die, so you make every effort and take everything on board,” he says. While having treatment, he gave up his taxi-driving business, a job he had hoped would provide a stress-free income after nearly 30 years of running an advertising agency. “I used to have a sweet tooth and be extremely keen on convenience food,” says Dixon. He now avoids fast food and most processed foods and has upped his fruit and vegetable intake. Breakfast porridge with piles of sugar has been replaced by muesli with fresh fruit and yoghurt, and lunchtime pies swapped for fresh salads or homemade vegetable soup.

To reduce the risk of developing cancer, the World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) recommends eating mostly foods of plant origin, at least five servings of non-starchy vegetables and fruit a day and unprocessed grains and legumes. The WCRF also recommends limiting consumption of processed foods with added salt and avoiding all salt-preserved, salted or salty foods. “I don’t eat any processed meat now. Bacon, ham, salami, hot dogs, sausages, they’re gone completely out of my diet.” Instead, he eats fish and small quantities of red meat occasionally. The WCRF recommends eating very little, if any, processed meat and consuming less than 500g of cooked red meat a week. Dixon also swapped sugary coffees for green tea and cut back on all high-sugar foods – a wise idea, according to the WCRF, which recommends sparing consumption of high-sugar and high-fat, energy-dense foods, including fast foods, and avoiding sugary drinks. When it comes to alcoholic drinks, the WCRF recommends men limit their intake to two a day, and women to one a day. Alcohol is a carcinogen that causes between 3 and 12% of breast cancer cases, the second leading cause of cancer death in women, and increases the risk of mouth, pharynx, larynx, oesophagus and colorectal cancers. A healthy body weight and regular exercise are also important preventative health measures.

Dixon received positive results at his last check-up, progress he believes is the result of the excellent medical care he has received and his healthier lifestyle, which his wife has wholeheartedly supported. “I couldn’t have done this without her, and she’s also changed her diet accordingly.” He passionately encourages people to improve their lifestyle to avoid developing cancer. “Most people think, ‘I live a pretty healthy lifestyle, I eat well, I exercise well’, but if they wrote down everything they ate in the course of a day, then looked at which of those things had the capacity to introduce cancer, it would be a different story.” The reality is, one in two men and one in three women will develop cancer in their lifetime, and that “one” in the statistic isn’t always someone else. Is that motivation enough to change?

Email:, or write to “Nutrition”, c/o Listener, PO Box 90783, Victoria St West, Auckland 1142.

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