How simple dietary changes may help improve our odds against cancer

Dr. Nadja Pinnavaia

Nadja Pinnavaia, Ph.D., is the founder and CEO of Plantable, a wellness platform that makes it simple and easy to change dietary habits. After her mother-in-law’s cancer diagnosis, she began researching food and nutrition in search of solutions beyond chemotherapy. In honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, she’s sharing her story to help others understand how much lifestyle factors, especially our diets, impact our general health and well-being.

It was January 2014. It was one of those beautiful, blue-sky, bitterly cold January mornings in New York. I was riding in the back of the car with my in-laws and my two young children. Where we were headed has no bearing. My only recollection was my mother-in-law quietly telling me that the results from Memorial Sloan Kettering were back, and that the pending chemotherapy regime and clinical trial were no longer possible. The cancer had spread to her lymph nodes and the treatment had to be adapted.

I felt winded. I had no words. “Not again,” was my recurrent thought. I had already lost my mother to cancer. I had already played the game of “let’s hope the chemo works,” odds stacked, Vegas-style, against us. The game of optimism interspersed with the soul-destroying reality that sometimes it doesn’t work out the way we want it to.

We have all been there. Hearing that horrifying phrase for the first time in relation to a parent, friend, lover, God forbid a child: “It’s cancer.” 

My mother died in 2003. It had been a 9-½ year journey with triple-negative breast cancer. She was strong and drew courage from shielding my sister and me from the reality she faced, fueling us all with strength and optimism. Eventually her seemingly unending strength reached its limit. My sister and I faced the brutal reality.

I wanted it to be different this time. I didn’t want to take a back seat to chance with my mother-in-law. I wanted to help, not be helpless. I wanted a different outcome and I was going to do everything in my power to alter the odds.

Dr. Servan-Schreiber changed the course of my life and career. A neuroscientist dedicated to research, he ironically identified a brain tumor in himself when stepping in for a student who was running late for his MRI trial. As a brilliant physician, he, too, wanted to apply his scientific rigor to change his own odds. He did—pushing out his six-month life prognosis to decades while researching how lifestyle factors impact our immune system—one of the most important and first lines of defense against cancer.

Servan-Schreiber taught me that we may have more control than we think over cancer and other health concerns. He taught me that a strong immune system can help fight against bad genes. It’s not fool-proof, but it certainly does improve the odds. I learned how today’s modern diet, loaded with added sugar, refined grains, processed foods and an over-consumption of meat and dairy poorly affects the immune system and can increase our cancer risk. That’s the bad news. But the good news is that we can help fix what we eat. It’s in our control. We can change our diet and reduce our risk, while feeling and looking amazing at the same time. If this were a pill it would be more ubiquitous than the latest Apple gadget.

I was stunned. Why didn’t we all know this? Lifestyle matters—and we have the ability and the power to help change it. We can be more mindful of what we eat, choosing a real, whole food diet over that of convenience. We can learn to acknowledge stress and manage it in a constructive way. A healthy diet brings more energy, giving us a better chance of getting to the gym or taking an outside stroll, alleviating stress further. It’s genius!

I confess, I drove my mother-in-law a little crazy with my findings, and I would like to believe that my lifestyle nudges played its part in her recovery. What I learned from Servan-Schreiber and other physicians in the field catapulted me into a different career. We all have a personal mission. Mine became to reduce the risk of cancer through a change in diet.

While I can’t control those BRCA gene mutations I inherited, I can certainly change my odds, so as not to be prematurely robbed of my precious little kids any time soon. We all can. We have the power to reduce our risk of cancer.