In the world of medical fears, few things rank as high as cancer. For many people, a cancer diagnosis challenges their view of themselves as a “healthy person.” Fortunately, many cancers are curable. You can survive cancer and be healthy.

Cancer Biology 101

A basic understanding of how cancer develops can help you take advantage of what nutrition has to offer. Food can and should be a part of your plan for reducing the risk of cancer, and the risk of getting cancer again if you’ve already had it.

There are three basic steps to cancer development. Obviously, the process is very complicated at the cellular level. But the three-step model explains the most important changes that lead to cancer. These three steps represent some of the best opportunities for preventing cancer from developing at all.

Don’t Be Initiated Into This Club

The first step in cancer development is called “initiation.” One of the most common causes of initiation is free radical damage. Free radicals, which also go by the name oxidants, cause cell damage. Have you ever really thought about antioxidants? What is an oxidant? And why are we anti or against oxidants?

Oxidants cause oxidation, which is damaging to DNA – the instructions that tell cells what to do when. To wrap your head around oxidation, think of rusting.

Rusting is oxidation in the environment. Metal rusts and it no longer functions as it should. This same process happens in the body. We don’t exactly rust, but we do experience the same type of oxidation damage in our bodies.

This is where nutrition comes in. Vegetables, fruit, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds – plant foods – are loaded with antioxidants. And not just the common antioxidants we all know and love. Beyond vitamin C, vitamin E, and beta-carotene are hundreds, even thousands of antioxidants in plant foods.

It’s these thousands of antioxidants that work together to prevent oxidation in our bodies. In this very direct way, antioxidants in food prevent initiation. This is one of the ways by which plant foods are believed to reduce cancer risk.

But even with this plant protection, a few cells in our bodies are likely to be damaged or “initiated.” The key to preventing cancer development also lies with the next step, called “promotion.”

One Promotion You Don’t Want

The second step of the cancer development process, called promotion, doesn’t happen to just any cell. It happens to cells that already are initiated. We know plant foods limit the number of initiated cells, but what happens to the few cells that slip through the cracks?

Ideally, if a cell becomes damaged, it goes through a programmed cell death. This prevents it from multiplying and creating more damaged cells. However, for cells that are initiated, but don’t die, promotion, or step 2 can occur.

In promotion, damaged cells ignore the chemical messages of the normal cells around them. The damaged cell might be getting ready to multiply and grow. The normal cells in the neighborhood send chemical messages to prevent this. These messages say, “stop, wait, don’t go there.” Promotion allows damaged cells to tune out the “stop” messages.

Here’s where plant foods come to the rescue again. Among the thousands of nutrients found in plants are many that can help damaged cells hear the messages. These nutrients can, quite literally, act as little messengers. They make damaged cells sit up and take notice.

Dark purple and red foods seem to be especially adept at improving cellular communication. Think blackberries, blueberries, dark red cherries, grape juice, and red wine. Soy foods, such as tofu and tempeh, often touted for their possible effects on regulating female hormones such as estrogen, have some anti-promotion tricks up their sleeves as well.

And promotion is reversible. It’s one of the only parts of cancer development that can actually be turned back! Plant foods can help a “deaf” cell hear again. In a sense, this can help a damaged cell become closer to normal.

Stop This Progress If You Can

This brings us to “progression,” the third step in cancer development. In progression, damaged cells take the communication problem one step further. Now, these cells not only ignore messages. They begin to create their own messages. They try to influence the cells around them. It’s like negative peer pressure.

This is the damaged cells’ attempt to get normal cells to cooperate so they can grow and spread beyond the original site of cancer. This step is a key to metastasis – when cancer cells spread to distant parts of the body. This is important because it’s only after cancer cells have spread that treating cancer becomes so difficult.

You guessed it. Plant foods have a role to play in blocking progression too. Just as the thousands of naturally occurring phytonutrients in plants help damaged cells hear, they also help block unhealthy messages from damaged cells.

Many plant nutrients can act as roadblocks of a sort. They make it harder for damaged cells to influence the cells around them to misbehave too. Several nutrients have been studied for their effects on preventing or slowing progression.

Resveratrol, found in red wine and grape juice; lycopene, found in cooked tomatoes, watermelon, and pink grapefruit; and quercetin found in apples, tea, and onions all seem particularly well-suited for minimizing cancer cells’ ability to go through the progression phase of cancer development.

Putting Plants To Work For You

Knowing that plants contain nutrients that can slow down and impede the cancer process is pretty motivating. Every time you put a healthy plant food on your plate, you’ll feel good knowing you’re giving your body the tools to keep cancer at bay.

And it doesn’t hurt that these same foods help prevent other diseases as well. For preventing heart disease, diabetes, stroke, high blood pressure, arthritis, you name it … plants in the diet are nothing but helpful.

Every chance you get, throw in a plant food. You’ll be on your way to better health.

Blueberries on your oatmeal? Check. Apple with lunch? Check. Nuts in your afternoon yogurt? Check. Carrots and hummus as a snack while fixing dinner? Check. A heaping pile of veggies with dinner? Green leafies on your sandwich? Check.

The options are endless. The choice is up to you.

Author's Bio: 

Suzanne Dixon, MPH, MS, RD, is an internationally recognized expert in nutrition, chronic disease, cancer, health and wellness as well as the Executive Editor of Nutrition Intelligence Report, a free natural health and nutrition newsletter. For more information, past issues or to sign up for a free subscription, visit