Colon cancer is playing hardball with Eric Davis. The Baltimore Orioles' right fielder recently delivered up a baseball-sized mass from his bowel, riveting our attention. He's at the top of his game, young, fit and powerful. If he was susceptible, what chance do the rest of us mere mortals have?
Perhaps a good one, especially if we heed the wake-up call.
Colorectal cancer is the second-leading cause of cancer death for both men and women in the United States. Heredity and environment work together to make us vulnerable. But we're not defenseless.
In many cases, environment is probably more important than our gene pool in deciding our risks. Genes and some previous cancers account for only 23 percent of colorectal cancers. Factors we control, like diet, exercise and smoking strongly influence the rest. And since the average cure rate is only 50 percent, prevention is a much better strategy.
Like most cancers, colorectal cancer develops in two stages over a long period of time. The vast majority start as benign polyps. Much later, some other insult triggers malignant changes. So we have two chances to influence the process by making lifestyle adjustments that lower our risks. We can do it before polyps develop or before they turn cancerous.
When it comes to diet and colon cancer, the best defense is a good offense. And the heavy hitters are reducing fat, increasing fiber and getting enough calcium.
Large-scale studies show that countries like ours with high colon-cancer rates average 40 percent to 45 percent of total calories from fat, while low-risk countries average only 10 percent of calories from fat. More personalized studies show high-fat diets increase risks for those first-stage benign polyps, and also increase the likelihood polyps will return after they have been surgically removed.
Numerous studies show that as people eat more fiber from fruits, legumes, nuts, whole grains and especially vegetables, colon cancer risks decrease. In fact, some studies suggest that eating plenty of plant foods may even balance out the risks of a high-fat vTC diet.
And most large population studies also show that groups of people who eat high-calcium foods have lower cancer risks.
So cut down on fat. Eat less butter, margarine, mayonnaise. Cut your usual portions of fried foods and sweets in half. Fill up on plant foods. Enjoy fresh peaches, plums, nectarines, watermelon, grapes and cantaloupe. Mix them with low-fat yogurt. Eat more salads and leafy greens topped with low-fat cheese. Snack on baby carrots. Breakfast on high-fiber cereal mixed with low-fat milk. Small steps can make a big difference.
I don't know Eric Davis or his lifestyle personally, so these comments are generalizations. And his youth suggests heredity is the dominant factor. Usually risk increases at 40, rises sharply at 50, doubles at 60 and again at 70, and finally peaks at 75. But at any age, players and fans benefit from more healthful eating.
I recently participated in the American Dietetic Association's national survey of ballpark food. It didn't turn up much cancer-prevention fare. Low-fat chocolate milk, a fruit shake and lettuce and tomato for crab cakes were the best I could find at Camden Yards. High-fat foods abound, of course.
If you only go to the stadium once in a while, that's OK. But if you're a regular, make sure to have your fruits, veggies and skim milk at home. Strong defensive play is half the ballgame. Lower your risks now, while there is still time.
Colleen Pierre, a registered dietitian, is the nutrition consultant to the Union Memorial Sports Medicine Center and Vanderhorst & Associates in Baltimore.
Pub Date: 6/24/97