Cancer prevention strategies must begin in pregnancy and childhood

19 January 2017 | Cancer prevention

Dr Paul RogersDr Paul C Rogers is a paediatric oncologist at British Columbia Children’s Hospital and Professor at University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada

Recently I was the medical officer for a group of 17 adolescent cancer survivors on an adventure trip. I undertook an informal food questionnaire on these brave kids. None of them had adequate nutritional knowledge nor were they eating recommended nutritional intake. The consumption of highly refined sugary foods and drinks was alarming, as was the inadequate consumption of fruits and vegetables.

Good nutrition is needed during pregnancy, childhood and adolescence

A fundamental mistake when considering nutritional cancer prevention strategies is ignoring that prevention should start before conception, continue during pregnancy, infancy, childhood and adolescence to have its maximum optimal benefits at all ages.

Childhood leukemia, for example, has a poorer prognosis both in the undernourished child as well as the other end of the malnutrition spectrum, obesity. In high-income countries, overall survival for most childhood cancer is in excess of 80%. However, low-income countries, where the majority of children with cancer live, that statistic is sadly closer to 20% or lower. I have seen too many severely undernourished children in low-income countries die unnecessarily of cancer.

Nutrition can improve childhood cancer survival

Good nutritional counselling and support has been documented to be of benefit in helping children cope with their cancer. This helps by increasing their wellbeing and minimising toxic effects of aggressive chemotherapy, radiation therapy and surgery. In some countries, such as India, they have dramatically improved childhood cancer survival by implementing nutritional interventions both directly with the patient and for their family support groups.

The literature shows a decrease in childhood leukemia and neuroblastoma when there is adequate fruit and vegetable consumption or folic acid supplementation during conception and pregnancy. Nutrition is fundamental to wellbeing at every stage of life but especially important during early periods of life. Good nutrition during pregnancy, childhood and adolescence has the most long-term benefit to an individual’s wellbeing, prevention of cancer as well as other chronic diseases.

How do we put health information into action?

There is a plethora of nutrition articles in the media providing information as to which foods are bad or good for you. Despite the benefits of good nutrition being widely published in lay and medical literature, there is little consensus on how nutrition can be included and implemented within prevention strategies. These strategies could help give nutritional advice to parents, support schools in educating our children, help reach out to health care providers and the general population.

The present focus of cancer control, however, is mainly on early diagnosis and treatment and not on trying to prevent cancer in the first place. Furthermore, the vital importance of nutrition is often overlooked.

Many countries do not have public health policies that ensure adequate and appropriate nutrition for the population. The consumption of junk food and sugary beverages is a scourge on our society and a main contributor to obesity, which is a risk factor for cancer and other chronic diseases.

Childhood cancer survivors

Paediatric cancer care is about curing young patients and we do have a high success rate when hospitals or clinics have the appropriate resources. We are very aware of the significant long-term complications of cancers and their treatments. Childhood cancer survivors are at increased risk of secondary cancers due to the treatment they receive, the underlying initial cancer type they had and their lifestyle behaviour decisions they make. However, some of these side effects can be minimised with nutrition and physical activity counselling and interventions.

We need to focus on prevention

There are many guidelines available on appropriate nutrition, but they need to be more effectively used and promoted. Funding of research for preventative interventions and the practice of prevention are inadequate; prevention does not gain the level of support or attention it deserves and requires. Could this be because prevention does not have the emotional appeal of that of a dying cancer patient?

A cancer control strategy has to embrace an active preventative program, with a strong focus on nutrition, which must begin at time of pregnancy, if not before. Polio was not eliminated by finding a cure but by finding a successful prevention strategy – let’s do the same for preventable cancers.