Colon cancer is one of the world’s most prevalent and lethal forms of cancer and is believed to be driven primarily by the Western diet. It has been estimated that one million people around the world are diagnosed with colon cancer, and 500,000 die from it, each year. Conventional treatment approaches continue to do very little to reduce mortality, and this is believed to be due to the presence of a subpopulation of colon tumour cells known as cancer stem cells (CSCs), or tumour-initiating cells (TIC), that are resistant to chemotherapy and therefore contribute to relapse.

In fact, chemotherapy not only fails to destroy the cells at the root of colon cancer but may induce cancer stem-cell-like properties (stemness) within colon tumour cells that otherwise would not express them, the result of which is to make the post-treatment, surviving colon cancer cells far more malignant.

Radiotherapy has also been found to induce stemness in cancers of the breast (up to 30x increased tumourigenicity), indicating that both chemotherapy and radiotherapy — the purported ‘cure’ of conventional cancer care — may worsen the disease.

Given the bleak situation, interest in cancer stem cell targeting therapies of natural origin has increased dramatically in the past few years. In a new study published in Nutrition titled, “Colon carcinogenesis: influence of Western diet-induced obesity and targeting stem cells using dietary bioactive compounds,” researchers identified the Western lifestyle and diet as a primary driver of colon cancer incidence:

“Accumulating evidence suggests that lifestyle factors are one of the predominant components that modulate susceptibility to colon cancer. It is a concerning fact that the highest incidence rates of colon cancer are observed in developed nations, including the United States. Moreover, the risk for colon cancer is elevated within one generation of individuals who migrated from developing countries to developed countries. Colon cancer rates are rapidly rising in developing nations and could be due to the adoption of several features of the Western lifestyle. Diets rich in red and processed meats, refined starches, sugar, and saturated and trans-fatty acids but poor in fruit, vegetables, fibre, u-3 fatty acids, calcium, vitamin D, and whole grains are closely associated with an increased risk for colon cancer. Other main features of the Western lifestyle, such as excess body mass and sedentary behaviour, is also strongly associated with a higher risk for developing colon cancer.”

The researchers emphasised the special role of diet in colon cancer in particular: “Diet contributes to 20% to 42% of all human cancers and 50% to 90% in colon cancer

According to the study, the primary biological mechanism by which the Western diet drives colon cancer is through increasing insulin-like growth factor (IGF-1) levels, and decreasing IGF-binding proteins which in turn increases bioactive (free) IGF-1 levels. This results in a complex cascade of molecular events consistent with cancer initiation and promotion.

Of course, if the Western diet is the primary driver of colon carcinogenesis, the best preventive approach is to replace it by a diet much higher in organically produced, high vegetable/fibre, high non-oxidized fat (richer in omega 3 and natural saturated fats), and anti-inflammatory ingredients. But when these modifications either are impossible to implement (think ‘food deserts’) or fail to take hold early enough or after colon tumours and invasive cancer has already taken root, a more targeted and perhaps ‘heroic’ approach is needed – that is not reliant on chemotherapy.

According to the researchers,

“The search for a non-toxic chemotherapeutic regimen is fuelled by epidemiologic studies that show a correlation between plant-based diets and the reduced risk for various cancers.”

Their study focused on the following natural compounds as potential chemotherapy alternatives:

• Reseveratrol
• Curcumin
• Lycopene
• Grapeseed Extract

The study identified these compounds as having potentially potent anti-colon cancer properties due in part to their ability to interfere with elevated IGF-1 levels, as well as ameliorating many Western diet-induced downstream effects, such as inhibiting the cancer stem cell self-renewal pathway known as the Wnt pathway.

The remarkable thing about these phytocompounds is that they are found in commonly consumed food ingredients. Curcumin is the primary polyphenol in the spice root turmeric, which is consumed the world over. Resveratrol is found in many common foods, including grapes, peanuts and chocolate. Lycopene is found in commonly consumed produce items such as watermelon, tomatoes and guava fruit. Grape seed, while not commonly consumed outside supplement form, is found in grapes and is therefore an easily accessible nutraceutical in most places in the world.

A hidden lesson here may be that instead of waiting until after one is diagnosed with a serious health condition such as colon cancer it would make sense to incorporate smaller, culinary doses of these beneficial compounds on a daily basis as a food-as-preventive-medicine approach versus taking heroic ‘drug like’ doses of the compounds later as ‘chemotherapy’ alternatives.

While the latter choice should at least be made available to those whose prognosis with chemotherapy or surgery alone looks bleak, it would behoove medical professionals and their patients to take seriously this preliminary research by using non-toxic dietary modifications and/or therapeutic concentrations of these bioactive food ingredients early on as a preventive medicine strategy.