There are a few diseases that inspire more fear than cancer. Because cancer itself is scary and modern, conventional treatment for cancer is so difficult to go through, there is much more fear surrounding cancer even though more people die of heart disease. For those of us who have watched loved ones die from cancer, we are well aware of the pain and misery it can cause, and still mourn the premature death caused by the disease.

So it makes sense that there is a theme of hope in the health food community that the food choices we make can prevent cancer. You can’t talk about frugality vs. eating healthy without someone pointing out that eating well will save us money because it will reduce your medical bills. Personally, I wouldn’t put so much of my time and energy into eating healthy — and writing about it — if I thought it didn’t make a difference.

Certainly there is research to support the idea that certain foods can drastically reduce our chances of getting cancer. About 35 percent of cancers are known to be related to nutritional factors, so a well-nourished body certainly can help prevent certain cancers. Specific foods, whether it be wild salmon, broccoli (or broccoli sprouts), onions and garlic, or olive oil have been linked to fighting or warding off cancer, and these studies encourage me.

The recent boom in those who eat a “caveman” or “paleo” diet is based partly on the idea that we can help prevent a wide variety of diseases by eating a diet based on those of our prehistoric ancestors, considering that modern researchers consider cancer a rarity of the time. I think eating a diet full of healthy proteins and produce is a wise decision. 

But we shouldn’t think there are any guarantees in this world. Whenever a health coach, author, doctor, or researcher succumbs to cancer (whether they promoted a vegan diet, or a meat-based diet), there is a ripple effect on those they influenced. “Surely if they were giving sound nutritional advice, they wouldn’t have gotten cancer!”

In my own life, I saw that happen when a close friend who was a “health nut” died of cancer. Many who knew her and were influenced by her basically threw up their hands and said, “If she died of cancer, there is little hope for me! I am going to eat what I want and enjoy life!”

I completely understand this response and yet I'm puzzled by it at the same time. I started eating “healthy” because it is what helps me enjoy life — not because I thought it guaranteed a cancer-free life. And I feel like I enjoy food more now that I eat better.

Do I hope that it reduces my chance of cancer? For someone who has a higher genetic likelihood, sure I do. But I also know that there are other factors as well, some of which are out of my control. This is why I am personally thankful to learn about doctors who are treating cancer effectively (whether conventionally or using more natural methods).

Cancer has been a problem a long time, and it has taken loved ones before their prime in modern days and ancient ones as well. There was a recent discovery of a cancer tumor in the bone of an ancient “Neanderthal” dated to be 120,000 years old, which is 100,000 years earlier than the previously oldest cancer found.

Researchers don’t often find evidence of cancer in older bones because these populations were not subjected to the same stresses we have today, such as toxins, pollution, radiation and unhealthy diets.

We should be encouraged that cancer is more rare the farther back in history you go. Reverting to some of the dietary principles of the ancient world could be an important factor in preventing disease. However, I think that we should do so with our eyes wide open: Even in a much purer world with less toxins, there was still some evidence of cancer.

Thankfully, cancer is not a death sentence. I personally was inspired by "Knockout," a book that interviews doctors who are helping treat cancer more effectively with natural treatments. It has given me hope that there are ways to treat cancers that are very serious and in any stage.

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Related paleo diet articles on MNN:

Will my 'paleo' diet prevent cancer?
As researchers find cancer in ancient bones, it makes me ponder the definition of a healthy diet.