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Possible cancer prevention through lifestyle choices

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. - In this column, Charlotte Hofer interviews Roberta Cahill of the American Cancer Society, who shows the correlation between lifestyle choices and cancer risk, including the effect it has on Native people. Cahill is Yankton Sioux and lives in South Dakota. Her work focuses on cancer awareness and education to diverse populations.

The American Cancer Society is kicking off its first ''Great American Eat Right Challenge''- a challenge aimed at encouraging people to adopt healthy lifestyle choices in order to prevent cancer. Statistics show that more than half the adult population in every state is overweight. While the challenge is promoted in the fall, the ACS urges Americans to continue with healthy eating and fitness habits all year long.

Charlotte Hofer: Why are our lifestyle choices so important?

Roberta Cahill: They're crucial because we're finding that one-third of cancer deaths could have been prevented just by making simple, healthy lifestyle changes - watching what you eat and getting enough exercise. These are things that people have control over. It doesn't necessarily mean that you have to give up your favorite foods; it just means watching your portion sizes and trying to eat more fresh fruits, vegetables and grains. Our message is moderation, not deprivation.

Hofer: How have our portion sizes changed in the past 20 years?

Cahill: Our concept of what an average portion size is has ballooned in the last 20 years! Twenty years ago, an average serving of french fries was 210 calories. Today, it's 610 calories! That's a 400-calorie difference! We need to start monitoring our portion sizes to make sure that we're eating within the normal, healthy range. You can do that by going to our Web site at and seeing what healthy portion sizes really are.

Hofer: Are Americans generally aware of the link between obesity and cancer?

Cahill: No. What's scary is that Americans are dangerously unaware of the link between being overweight and cancer risk. Most people know there's a strong connection between obesity and heart disease, but we've found that only 1 in 10 know the link obesity has to cancer.

Hofer: Why is it especially important for Native Americans to be aware of obesity and cancer risk?

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Cahill: Cancer is the second leading cause of death for American Indians in the northern Plains, accounting for 15 percent of all deaths, according to the Northern Plains Comprehensive Cancer Control. We're also seeing that Native American children in many areas have a higher percentage of obesity than other children. We all need to work together to really push the message that simple lifestyle changes can greatly reduce the chance of getting cancer, for kids and adults alike.

Hofer: Have there been any studies linking the consumption of Native American traditional foods and lower rates of cancers?

Cahill: While more research is still needed, beans, peas, lentils and peanuts - which are all part of the traditional Native American diet - contain dietary fiber, folic acid, isoflavones and other compounds that have been shown to inhibit carcinogenesis in animal studies. This food group has been of interest in cancer research. In the traditional Native diet there was an emphasis on consumption of dark green leafy vegetables and deep yellow vegetables - like squash. These foods, which are high in carotenoids, are thought to reduce cancer risk due to their antioxidant properties. In 1997, it was determined that carotenoids may reduce lung cancer risk, and may reduce the risk of cancers of the esophagus, stomach, colon and rectum, breast and cervix.

Hofer: What about the cancer survival rates for Native Americans if they are diagnosed with cancer?

Cahill: Unfortunately, American Indians and Alaska Natives have a lower survival rate once they receive a cancer diagnosis, compared to that of the general population, and that's true for a variety of reasons. Some factors include: later stage of the disease when diagnosed, the lack of available screening services in their area, lack of appropriate care, and sometimes they have to travel long distances just to get to treatment centers.

Hofer: How can the American Cancer Society Web site help people control their weight?

Cahill: We've added great new interactive tools to the Web site, to help consumers control weight and learn healthy habits in nutrition and exercise. You can calculate your body mass index on the Web site to determine whether you are at a healthy weight. You can calculate your daily calorie needs. There's a healthy eating quiz, a personal trainer on video and delicious healthy recipes.

Note: For cancer information any time, or to find out more about the Great American Eat Right Challenge, contact the American Cancer Society at or (800) ACS-2345. For information on this article, e-mail