Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Lessons From a Sea Slug by TM RJ Laguardia

I’m sure at one time or another, we’ve all been reminded, either by our friends, or by our “consciences” to watch what we eat. If this friendly persuasion is not enough, allow me to give an ironic illustration that might just push you over the edge.

In the Bay of Naples in Italy live the nudibranch, a type of sea slug, and the medusa, a type of jellyfish. Owing to its voracious appetite, the medusa ingests a lot of things, including little nudibranch larvae, which are immune to its digestive juices. And so, these larvae are lodged in the jellyfish’s stomach until they mature. Once they do, they start eating the poor jellyfish from the inside, until all that is left is a tiny, almost parasitic piece of the old jellyfish.

Ladies and gentlemen, if we are not careful, we might end up like the poor jellyfish. The threat to us, however, is not as obvious as sea slug larvae, yet it is just as dangerous, and even more lethal. I am talking about the silent killer scientists refer to as Colorectal Cancer.

Also called Colon Cancer, it is the second most common cancer in the world. It is also the second leading cause of cancer death, with a 50% mortality rate, according to the 2001 Asia-Pacific Cancer Conference. The majority of the patients are in the sixth and seventh decades of life, with a mean age of 55.3 years. Based on data from various International Agencies, there are an estimated 47,020 new cases of colon cancer in the Philippines each year.

Most persons with this cancer have either no symptoms or very generic symptoms, until the cancer reaches an advanced stage. This is made worse by low cancer prevention consciousness in the country, and the fact that most patients seek consultation only when the cancer is in its advanced stages. Not surprisingly, cancer survival rates are also low. According to the Philippine Cancer Control Program of the Department of Health, for every two cancer cases diagnosed annually, one will die within the year.

Thankfully though, prevention is possible. All it takes is to remember key factors that contribute to the risks of the disease. As I don’t think there is anyone in the room nearing the dreaded age of 50, I won’t dwell much on age. As I would like to assume that we all lead healthy lifestyles (i.e. no smoking or drinking, and plenty of regular exercise), I won’t dwell on lifestyle either. Instead, I will concentrate on the one risk factor that I think matters most: diet.

Colorectal Cancer incidence is closely related to diet. Just what kind of diet regimen is needed to combat this disease? The answer has been with us since our elementary school days: a balanced diet. The American Cancer Society recommends at least 5 servings of fruits and vegetables each day. The ACS also recommends several servings of other foods from plant sources such as breads, cereals, grain products, rice, pasta, or beans. Apparently, it isn’t the fiber, but the phytochemicals present in these substances that prevent cancer. An increased intake of calcium (at least 1,500 mg per day) is also helpful, as well as a diet rich in folate.

On the other hand, diets replete with fat, protein, calories, alcohol, and meat have been associated with an increased incidence of the cancer, especially if these are cooked at high temperatures and done so for a long period of time. Researchers from the National Cancer Institute of the US reveal that diners who eat their steaks medium-well or well-done are three times more likely to develop cancer than those who eat rare or medium-rare steaks. Those who eat beef four or more times a week are twice as likely to develop cancer. Interestingly enough, meat products served in fast food restaurants have been found to have low levels of these substances.

A 1996 study conducted by doctors Ramiro and Perez showed that lack of knowledge about a healthy diet is not the problem in this country. The problem is that we cannot marry our knowledge with actual practice. In the study, the respondents were asked to assess their current dietary practice along a scale. A majority of them responded in the satisfactory to poor range. Despite this, however, a good number were still ambivalent as to whether or not they were willing to give up unhealthy practices.

These are relatively simple adjustments we have to make. If we don’t change now, it might be too late. A friend’s mother was recently diagnosed with Stage IV Colorectal Cancer. The sad thing is, prior to that, she thought she was in the pink of health as everyone else in the room probably thinks he or she is. Amplify that thought, and project it to the various members of your family who might be living with this devastation right under our very noses. When it comes to cancer, prevention is priceless, no matter what the cure.

Remember that it wouldn’t hurt to add more fruit and vegetable servings in your diets. Remember that it wouldn’t hurt to cut down on meat products cooked at high temperatures and for long periods. Remember that with Colorectal Cancer, you don’t know what you have until it’s gone. After all, you are what you eat. In the end, it’s almost like choosing between being the slug or the jellyfish. I’d rather be the slug. How about you?

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