Vitamins that Stop Cancer

September 22, 1990

Twenty years of medical research have finally proved what many doctors long suspected: that vitamins and other food substances help prevent cancer. Interestingly, the first product to be proven successful in a cancer-fighting role is Accutane, a vitamin A derivative marketed as an acne drug.

Researchers at the University of Texas at Houston have found that the vitamin A derivative has helped prevent lung, throat and mouth cancers in people diagnosed as at risk of developing them. The patients had been successfully treated for head or neck cancer, but their tissues were primed to grow new, potentially more life-threatening cancers. But in a three-year trial, Accutane prevented new cancers, although it couldn't keep the old cancers from coming back.

This news has special significance for people whose habits, such as smoking or drinking, can predispose their bodies to develop cancer. Dr. Peter Greenwald, head of cancer prevention at the National Cancer Institute, said the study "gives us the final proof" that chemo-prevention of cancers works. Now the hunt is on for other vitamin derivatives, such as beta carotene, which have similar properties.

The way the researchers reached their conclusions is interesting, too. Doctors have long noted that countries whose populations consume more fruit and vegetables and less fat have a lowered incidence of cancer. And laboratory animals fed certain vitamins and their dietary components were protected even though they were also fed high amounts of cancer-causing substances. That led to attempts to get similar results with humans.

What this all boils down to, in a fancy, clinically discrete way, is that good eating habits are healthier than bad ones. The Texas researchers' achievement is impressive, but it is far better to avoid cancer than to fight to avoid getting it again. That means a healthy diet, buttressed with plenty of fruit, vegetables and fiber and watched carefully to avoid fat and excessive extras, can keep a person healthy longer than the high-cholesterol, high-in-additives diet many Americans pursue. But we knew that all along, didn't we? Doctors have been telling us that most of the 20th Century.

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