How Nutrition Can Positively Impact the Hallmarks of Cancer

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There are 10 Hallmarks of Cancer that every cancer cell exhibits.  These Hallmarks are your anticancer defense mechanism and are what allow cancer cells to survive, proliferate, and spread.  They define the biology of tumorous growths and are what Western medicine uses to understand the complexities of the disease, so they can develop treatment options.


You can think of it this way, remember the movie Ocean’s Eleven?  There were these 11 healthy guys, who were trying to pull off this big casino heist.  They wanted to get to the vault in the casino, so they could steal all the money; but in order to do so, they had to break through a number of different security barriers.  Your healthy cells are like these eleven guys.  All the security breaches they need to get through are like the 10 Hallmarks of Cancer.  By breaching these 10 Hallmarks, or 10 security checks, your healthy cells take on this progressively cancerous state.


It’s important to understand that these Hallmarks are useful to more than just the pharmaceutical industry.  There are also natural, nutritional approaches that have been studied and proven to positively impact these same critical 10 Hallmarks of Cancer.  And, the benefit to using food and nutrition is that there are no toxic side effects.


By working with a certified oncology nutrition therapist like myself, you will be able to incorporate nutrition therapy strategies, including therapeutic diets and specific phytonutrients to address all 10 of these Hallmarks of Cancer in a non-toxic way.  Furthermore, these strategies are very complimentary to Western medicine’s approach and can be used in conjunction with your existing treatment plan or as a stand-alone preventative approach to cancer.


Let’s delve into just two of the Hallmarks to show you how food and nutrition can impact your cancer outcome.


The first and quintessential Hallmark of Cancer is Sustained Proliferation.  This is where cancer cells grow out of control.  Healthy cells should normally stop dividing at some point and even commit cell suicide when they’ve reached their full lifecycle.  But cancer cells grow wildly out of control, like these devilish weeds in your beautiful flower garden.  What’s supposed to happen is that there should be this balance of cell growth that is maintained by specific genes, certain genes turn on cell growth and others suppress it.   Genes that promote cell growth are called Growth Factors while genes that suppress cell growth are called Tumor Suppressor genes.  Cancer cells can outsmart these genes sometimes and create their own Growth Factors.  These genes then become damaged, allowing the cancerous cells to proliferate.


So what can we do about this?  Well, quite a lot actually.  Diet is a major factor in affecting growth factor levels.  Phytonutrients like curcumin, found in the turmeric root, and DHA from wild caught fish are effective in reducing cell proliferation in cancer cells.  There are also flavonoids like apigenin and luteolin from parsley, celery, and chamomile tea that can put a halt to out of control cancerous cell growth.  Aged garlic extract is also known to inhibit cancer cell growth.  There is also a ton of research going on now about our microbiome, that’s your gut bacteria.  Probiotics are the good healthy gut bacteria that we need and want in our GI tract and prebiotics are the foods that probiotics feed on.  Prebiotics, like inulin, have been shown to reduce cancer cell proliferation so not only is the food you eat important but your gut health, and gut bacteria, are also a critical component to creating an environment that is inhospitable to cancer.


The second Hallmark of Cancer is Evading Tumor Suppressors.  So remember, a normal cell cycle includes cell division but it is highly regulated and there should be these checks and balances to make sure everything is on the straight and narrow.  These checks and balances include anti-growth signals that put on the brakes to cell division when it detects damage in the DNA of a cell.  Two important anti-growth signals, or tumor suppressor genes as they are typically called, are the Retinoblastoma (RB) protein and p53.  These are both proteins that can detect and halt cancer cell proliferation, but many cancer patients have defects in one or both of these genes.


So does it mean you’re doomed and gloomed if your RB protein and/or p53 genes aren’t working properly?  Absolutely not.  It just means we need to work a little harder to support these pathways, so they can turn on those brakes when we need them to.  And again, I’m going to come back to food, nutrition, and nutrients.  Antioxidants found in berries, curcumin found in turmeric, and isothiocyanates like sulforaphane found in broccoli and other cruciferous vegetables are all able to activate these important tumor suppressor genes.  Anthocyanidins are another phytonutrient that can turn on tumor suppressors like p53 and the RB protein.  You can find anthocyanidins in cherries, raspberries, blueberries, and plums.


I could go on and on but I don’t want to overwhelm you at this point.  What is critical for you to understand, though, is that what you eat, absolutely without a doubt, makes a huge difference on your cancer outcome.  You can see this with just the two examples I provided on how food and nutrients can support these critical Hallmarks of Cancer.   And remember, Western medicine regularly refers to these Hallmarks in order to understand and treat cancer, so it’s not like they’re just some disregarded nutritional mumbo jumbo I made up to make it sound like nutrition is important.   You can talk to your oncologist about these 10 Hallmarks of Cancer and even explain how nutrition can support these pathways in a non-toxic, complimentary way.  So promise me, if you hear anyone tell you that what you eat doesn’t make a difference, you will not only ignore them but recognize that they have not been educated in the science of nutrition or on its impact on a healthy body let along one that has been riddled with cancer.



  1. Hanahan, Douglas, and Robert A. Weinberg. “Hallmarks of Cancer: The Next Generation.” Cell 144, no. 5 (2011): 646-74. doi:10.1016/j.cell.2011.02.013.
  2. Chen KL, Jung P, Kulkoyluoglu E, Liguori C, Lumibao J, et al. (2017) “Impact of Diet and Nutrition on Cancer Hallmarks.” J Cancer Prev Curr Res 7(4): 00240. DOI: 10.15406/jcpcr.2017.07.00240.
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