"We're all customers for cancer -- no one has an advantage," according to Michael Simic, an oncology researcher from the University Pennsylvania School of Medicine.
Dr. Simic was the moderator of a Roundtable Discussion on Nutritional Strategies to Prevent Cancer, part of a weeklong international seminar on cancer prevention held here in late April.
The roundtable was designed to help figure out how each of us can use research information to reduce our cancer risks.
Clearly, improved eating habits would be a big step.
One-third of all cancers are food-related. (Another third are smoking-related. The final third is all other causes combined.)
Dr. Lee Wattenburg, president of the American Association of Cancer Research, noted the value of two persistent recommendations:
* Reduce risk factors. Eating too many calories and too much fat creates significant risk. Changing these lifestyle factors would be a good preventive move but appears difficult for most people to achieve.
Other researchers pointed out that yo-yo dieting, on the other hand, increases cancer risks.
* Increase protective factors. The protective benefits of eating more vegetables and fruits are well supported by epidemiological studies.
But the value of simply taking a supplement is less clear.
Antioxidants from food, including vitamin C, vitamin E, beta carotene and selenium are emerging as major players in cancer prevention.
At the same time, phytochemicals, a new class of potential cancer fighters found in food, have been uncovered by animal and laboratory studies.
So, we're reminded of how much we don't know about what's in food and that just popping a supplement isn't the complete answer.
Gladys Block, formerly of the National Cancer Institutes and now professor of public health nutrition at the University of California at Berkeley, took a much stronger stand in favor of fortifying the food supply with antioxidant nutrients.
She notes that we wiped out pellagra, rickets, beri beri and goiter, not by changing people's eating habits, but by adding vitamins and minerals to the food supply.
Cancer costs us $100 billion a year. Fortification sounds like cheap insurance against pain and suffering, as well as overwhelming health care costs.
Colleen Pierre, a registered dietitian, is the nutrition consultant to the Union Memorial Sports Medicine Center in Baltimore.