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Supplements No Substitute for Healthy Diet

Thursday, March 13th, 2014

Bad news for vitamin-lovers: it appears they are not helping you prevent cardiovascular disease (CVD). A study carried out by the American Heart Association concluded that “the scientific data [does] not justify the use of antioxidant vitamin supplements for CVD risk reduction,” and that there is no consistent evidence which suggests that consuming micronutrients in higher amounts than those found in a balanced, healthy diet is beneficial in regards to CVD risk reduction.

What’s more, your vitamin supplements aren’t helping you prevent cancer, either, as outlined here by the American Cancer Society. Other organizations such as the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and the American Academy of Family Physicians have reported similar findings. 

In most cases, vitamin supplements are not harmful, and the results of the latest research do not mean that supplements offer no benefits whatsoever. But if you are taking them to lower your risk of CVD or cancer, the newest evidence suggests that you are wasting your money.

There is currently no official recommendation on either taking or avoiding vitamin supplements for healthy individuals, with a couple of exceptions. One such exception involves beta carotene, which studies such as this one show can actually increase a smoker’s risk of lung cancer when taken in the high doses found in many supplements. This is in direct opposition to the previously popular belief that high doses of beta carotene were beneficial in cancer prevention.

What has been shown to have a beneficial effect on CVD and cancer risk is nutrition – a diet consisting of mostly vegetables, fruits, whole grains, low-fat dairy, and lean meats, particularly seafood. A diet like this offers plenty of fiber, antioxidants, and Omega-3 fatty acids. These nutrients offer a number of health benefits, including weight control, blood pressure control, and heart disease and cancer prevention. What the new studies show is that if you are hoping that your vitamin supplements allow you a bit more leeway in your diet, you’re shortchanging yourself.

What about Prenatal Vitamins?

It’s important to note that these studies do not mean that women who are pregnant or planning to become pregnant should toss all of their supplements. Folic acid should be taken to help prevent neural tube defects; the prenatal multivitamins prescribed by a woman’s doctor should be taken as directed. Also make sure your doctor knows about any vitamin supplements you are taking, because some can be harmful. High levels of vitamin A, for example, may be linked to birth defects.

And again, just because you are taking a prenatal vitamin – which you should if you are pregnant – does not mean your diet is not important. Healthy, natural foods contain many compounds not found in supplements, so a combination of prenatal vitamins and a healthy diet will help protect your baby as he or she develops.

– Yvonne S. Thornton, M. D., M. P. H.

What You Need to Know about Cervical Cancer

Thursday, February 6th, 2014

Cervical cancer, just as the name implies, forms in the tissues of the cervix, which connects the vagina and the uterus. Generally slow growing, cervical cancer usually does not cause any symptoms. This makes it extremely important to get regular pelvic exams, during which screening tests are done that can find early-stage cervical cancers and even precancerous cells.

Any women can get cervical cancer, but it is typically found in women over 35. There are about 12,000 new cases diagnosed in the United States each year. Almost all cervical cancers are caused by HPV (human papilloma virus), the virus that causes genital warts.

Who Is at Risk?

There are several risk factors that increase a woman’s chances of developing cervical cancer. If you have none of these risk factors, your odds of getting it are very low. These risks include HPV infection (which you may not be aware of, another reason why those pelvic exams are so important); smoking or exposure to secondhand smoke; HIV infection, which can significantly weaken the immune system; certain medications which weaken immune system response; and multiple sexual partners.   

Can Cervical Cancer Be Prevented?

The good news is that cervical cancer is highly preventable. The first step for younger women and girls is to get vaccinated against HPV. Gardasil, a vaccine that prevents HPV infection, protects against the four types of HPV that are responsible for most cervical cancers as well as genital warts (70% and 90% respectively). The vaccine is administered via a series of three simple injections and has very few and mild side effects.

An annual visit to your gynecologist is another excellent way to be sure that, should cervical cancer be present, it is caught in its early and easily treatable stage. It is important for women to realize that even if they haven’t been sexually active recently, they are still at risk for cervical cancer if they have ever had sex. For this reason, continued screening is vital and saves numerous lives every year.

Keep in mind that anyone can lower their risk of various types of cancers by living a healthful lifestyle. Eating plenty of fruits and vegetables, getting enough exercise and enough sleep, and avoiding smoking and other dangerous chemicals are all effective ways to protect yourself and your family.

While cancer cannot always be prevented, it can often be found early and treated. If you haven’t seen your gynecologist recently and it’s closing in on a year (or has been longer than that), make an appointment today. Ignorance is not bliss when it comes to cancer – it’s often a death sentence.

– Yvonne S. Thornton, M. D., M. P. H.

Cancer Deaths Down; More Progress Still Needed

Monday, February 3rd, 2014

Great news: the death rate from cancer is falling. Over the past 20 years, cancer deaths have decreased dramatically and steadily. After peaking in 1991, deaths from cancer have fallen 20%. That’s well over a million deaths prevented over 20 years!

The American Cancer Society’s research shows progress – for example, middle-aged black men are the group with the largest decline in cancer deaths – but also the need for continued research and improvements in care, as cancer deaths are still more common in black men than in white men. Experts estimate that there will be over 1.5 million new cases of cancer in the US in 2014, about 586,000 of which will result in death.

The divide in cancer cases and deaths between races and ethnicities is starkly evident when one considers that even though the rate of deaths has been effectively cut by half in middle-aged black men, their deaths from cancer are still significantly more common than those of white men. The lowest rate of cancer deaths is seen in Asian Americans. Even more deaths could be prevented if the knowledge we now have about fighting cancer were applied across all groups of people – including the poorest subset of the population.

Lung cancer continues to top the list of fatal cancers, along with breast, colon, and prostate cancers. These four cancers alone are responsible for almost half of all cancer deaths in the US, with lung cancer causing more than a quarter of cancer deaths. Researchers estimate that this year, these four cancers will be the most common cancers diagnosed.

Still, the rates of not only deaths but new cases of cancer are also falling. One reason is that more people are having regular colonoscopies, during which pre-cancerous polyps can be removed and full-blown cancer avoided. Lung cancer occurrence has also decreased, thanks in large part to declining numbers of smokers.

Doing Your Part

The number of new cancer cases as well as the number of deaths from cancer can be further reduced by individuals taking a proactive approach to preventing cancer – or catching it early. This is one reason why your annual appointment with your gynecologist is so important; cervical and other cancers can be detected and treated in the early stages, before metastasis complicates your prognosis. Screening for other types of cancers, such as breast cancer and colorectal cancer, is also highly effective at detecting cancer early on. Most cancers are highly treatable when caught early. Free and low-cost cancer screenings are available in many states.

You can further reduce your cancer risk by getting an HPV vaccine and/or a hepatitis B vaccine; ask your doctor if these are right for you. Besides getting regular preventive medical care, avoiding tobacco, limiting sun exposure and avoiding tanning beds, keeping alcohol use to a minimum, getting plenty of exercise, and eating lots of fruits and vegetables can all go a long way toward helping your prevent – and fight – cancer.

– Yvonne S. Thornton, M. D., M. P. H.

Fruit and Vegetable Intake Linked to Lower Bladder Cancer Risk

Thursday, November 28th, 2013

New studies show that a higher intake of fruits and vegetables is associated with a lower risk of bladder cancer in women. One study carried out recently by the University of Hawaii Cancer Center concluded that consuming more fruits and vegetables effectively lowered the risk of bladder cancer in women – worth noting, though, is the fact that no similar decrease in risk was found in men.

Researchers conducted this study to evaluate the relationship among lifestyle, genetic, and dietary factors and cancer risk. Data was collected from over 185,000 adults over a 12.5-year period. Among this group, 581 cases of invasive bladder cancer were diagnosed during the study, with almost three times as many men as women being diagnosed.

After adjustments were made to account for variables that would be related to cancer risk, such as age, researchers concluded that the lowest bladder cancer risk was found in women who consumed the most fruits and vegetables. Specifically, the highest consumption of yellow-orange vegetables and the highest intake of vitamins A, C, and E were the most closely related to lower cancer risk.

Another study had less favorable results, finding little difference in bladder cancer risk among women who consumed more fruits and vegetables, but even this one did find that consuming more cruciferous vegetables was related to a lower risk of bladder cancer. All cruciferous vegetables were found to be beneficial, but broccoli and cabbage in particular were related to a significant decrease in bladder cancer risk.

The findings are not surprising, as researchers have long believed that a healthy diet containing many fruits and vegetables lowers cancer risk. The studies do further solidify this belief, however, although more research is needed to understand the reasons why the benefit of lower cancer risk when consuming larger amounts of fruits and vegetables was found only in women.

In most cases of cancer it is impossible to identify a specific cause, so it only makes sense to do everything you can to prevent cancer from occurring. Eating more vegetables is easy and inexpensive, might help, and definitely won’t hurt. A diet rich in fruits and vegetables is also known to promote overall health and prevent other types of cancer as well.

Signs of Bladder Cancer

Blood in the urine is typically the first sign of bladder cancer. There may be enough blood to change the urine’s color, so if you notice that yours is pink, pale yellow-red, or even darker red, be sure and see a doctor. Often the amount of blood present is small enough that it is only found during urinalysis.

There is usually no pain associated with early bladder cancer, so even if you feel fine, get red- or pink-tinted urine checked by a doctor – even if it is clear the next day. Bladder cancer may also cause more frequent urination, pain or burning during urination, or feeling an urgent need to urinate even when the bladder is empty. Lower back pain is another possible symptom; so is inability to urinate even when the bladder is full.

All of these symptoms can also be signs of less serious diseases, such as non-cancerous tumors, infection, or kidney stones. However, they should all be checked out to rule out cancer and treat the condition that does exist. Bladder cancer, like other cancers, has a much more favorable prognosis when caught early, so don’t hesitate to see a doctor should you notice any of its signs.

– Yvonne S. Thornton, M. D., M. P. H.