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Expert Advice-Treatment of Cancer in Traditional Chinese Medicine(TCM):

Fighting Cancer with Soy and Other
Popular Chinese Foods

One out of three people alive today in the United States will ultimately die of cancer. More and more often, people in this country, including health professionals, are questioning the conventional treatments for cancer. Are surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy the only options for cancer patients? Interestingly, since surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy became the standard treatments for all cancer patients, data indicates no improvement in either the incidence of cancer or the survival rate. Many people are now turning to Eastern medicine to try to find an answer. Increasing numbers of people ask me how Chinese medicine deals with cancer: if there is hope for a cure, and what preventive methods are used.

We all know that many types of cancers are diet-related. It is estimated that 60% of cancers in women are diet-related. Evidence shows that some foods increase the likelihood of developing cancer, while others reduce the likelihood of developing cancer. In Chinese medicine, diet is considered to be a major factor in cancer prevention. Many foods have been tested scientifically and found to contain anti-cancer agents. Some of the most exciting research has been done on soy beans and soy food products.

Soy beans are considered to be one of the five sacred foods in China. For a typical Chinese family, every meal includes soy foods: soy milk for breakfast; tofu salad at lunch; tofu and vegetable stir-fry for dinner. Even at a formal banquet, you would see many soy-based dishes, often marinated with garlic, sesame, soy sauce, or ginger. Soy products can be easily made into noodles, breads, and snack foods, and are wonderful substitutes for meat, chicken, eggs, and cow’s milk.

Although Asian people have long claimed that soy foods promote increased health and longevity, it is only recently that Western researchers got around to performing scientifically controlled, double-blind studies on soy beans and their chemical constituents. When Asian scientists pointed out that cases of breast cancer and prostate cancer are significantly lower in Asian countries than in Western countries, and attributed this fact to diet; and when it was further pointed out that American women who consume soy foods have a fifty-percent lower incidence of cancer than women who don’t eat soy, many Western scientists decided it was time to investigate these phenomena.

So far, it has been discovered that soy beans contain at least five known anti-cancer agents, including protease inhibitors, phytoestrogens, saponins, and genistein. People have aware for decades that soy beans contain protease inhibitors, but it was thought that protease inhibitors interfered with proper digestion, so they were actually removed from all soy products produced in the United States. Only now are protease inhibitors recognized as valuable cancer fighters that inhibit tumor growth by inhibiting the action of certain enzymes that promote tumor growth.

Most people, including most health professionals, had never heard about genistein until 1993, when Dr. Herman Adlercreutz’s research on prostate cancer was cited in the Wall Street Journal. Genistein, a type of phytoestrogen, blocks the signal that triggers normal cells to become cancer cells, and is extremely effective in stopping the growth and spread of prostate cancer. Scientists have speculated that genistein may even be used as a cancer treatment. Although more than three hundred plants contain phytoestrogens, only soy beans produce genistein.

Phytoestrogens, which are heavily concentrated in soy, seem to create a favorable hormonal environment which prevents certain cancers from developing, especially breast cancer. The phytoestrogens in soy have a similar chemical structure to the estrogen produced by the body, but phytoestrogens are considered to be "weaker" than the body’s natural estrogen. "Strong" estrogens which bind to the body’s estrogen receptors are recognized as being a triggering mechanism in the development of breast cancer. Unfortunately, the women in "advanced" countries have not only their naturally-produced estrogen to deal with, but also the strong estrogens that come from the environment – from water, from meat, or leached into our foods and beverages from plastic containers. When soy is consumed, the natural weaker estrogen in the soy binds with the body’s estrogen receptors, thus leaving fewer estrogen receptors available for the risky, stronger estrogen which is then discharged harmlessly from the body. The faster strong estrogens are metabolized and discharged, the less damage they can cause.

Until recently, soy beans have been under-appreciated in this country, and are often associated with animal fodder or extreme poverty. When I first came to America, I would extol soy foods to my patients, only to be met with skepticism. "Soy beans? That’s cow food," said one. A journalist told me he had eaten a lot of soy foods when he was a poor student. It is a big challenge for Americans to switch from meat and potatoes to tofu and soy milk, but health-conscious people are beginning to change. Increasingly, people come to my clinic for consultations on cooking and eating soy foods. I have heard of women who rushed out to the grocery store to buy soy when they heard about its potential to prevent breast cancer. I am so glad that people here in the United States have finally begun to recognize the benefits of these "Cinderella beans."

Now that a variety of soy products are available in many city markets, it is well to recognize that some of them contain more phytoestrogens than others. In order to enjoy the maximum benefit from soy foods, I recommend that you purchase organically-grown soy beans whenever possible, and learn to make your own soymilk at home. Included in this section is a recipe for soymilk, as well as a delicious vegetable stir-fry recipe.

Making Soymilk at Home
Step 1. Preparing the soybeans: Soak 1 cup of dried soybeans with three cups of cold water, 8 hours. 
Step 2. Grinding the soybeans: Grind the soaked soybeans in a blender at high speed for one minute into a fine slurry, half cup of soaked soybeans with 3 cups of water.
Step 3. Straining the soymilk: Use a piece of nylon mesh to strain the soymilk into a pot or a large bowl.
Step 4. Cooking the soymilk: Cook the soymilk on a medium flame, boiling it for 5-10 minutes.
Step 5. Flavor the soymilk (if you like), and keep it in the refrigerator. Drink it every day. Nutritious and delicious.

Besides soy products, other cancer-preventing foods which are popular in China include green tea, cabbage, shiitake mushrooms, garlic, kelp, carrots, and cauliflower.

Green Tea, the most popular drink in China, Japan and other Asian countries, contains powerful anti-cancer substances called catechins. Many studies show that green tea can dramatically block the development of various cancers. Epigallocatechin gallate (one of the most potent catechins) is found in the highest concentrations in green tea. People confuse green tea with black tea, Oolong tea, Jasmine tea, and many other Asian teas. All tea is made from leaves picked from the same plant – the difference is in the processing. Green tea leaves are simply picked and sun-dried; other teas are either fermented or cooked. It is the lack of processing that makes green tea contain the most potent anti-cancer agents. A leading physician, Dr. Hirota Fujiki, at Japan’s National Cancer Center Research Institute, claims that drinking green tea could be one of the most practical methods of cancer prevention available to the general public at present.

Cabbage, the most popular vegetable in the northern part of China, can be found in many traditional dishes, including stir-fry vegetables and dumplings. The Chinese value it, not only for its good taste, but also for its wonderful anti-cancer effect. Studies show that cabbage can speed up the metabolism of estrogen in the body. It is thought that slower metabolism of estrogen promotes breast cancer. Another very interesting study done on cabbage concerned guinea pigs who received high doses of radiation. The study showed that all of the guinea pigs who were exposed to high levels of radiation and did not have cabbage in their diet died; but the group of guinea pigs who ate cabbage had a very high survival rate. This study indicates that cancer patients who are receiving radiation therapy would be wise to include substantial portions of cabbage in their diet.

Shiitake Mushroom. This brown and beefy-tasting mushroom has been used in Asian gourmet cooking for centuries as a substitute for meat. Its taste and texture are very different from that of regular mushrooms. It has gained fame as an immune system booster, widely recommended to cancer and AIDS patients. The biochemical in the shiitake mushroom that has been proven to augment immune system activity is called lenitan. Today it is possible to find shiitake mushrooms in many supermarkets and Asian groceries in the dried form. Fresh ones are also available in some co-ops. Shiitakes are delicious and can be prepared in a variety of ways: cooked or steamed with rice or noodles; or added to stir-fry and soups.

Garlic. As a food and a spice, garlic is used widely in both the East and the West. Scientific studies show that garlic can "deactivate" carcinogens, prevent the growth of cancerous tumors, and stimulate the formation of glutathione which detoxifies foreign materials. Garlic contains allicin which has antibiotic and anti-fungal properties. People call it a natural chemotherapy drug because of the way it destroys cancerous cells. It is especially preventive of colon and stomach cancers. One of garlic’s components, ajoene, is very toxic to malignant cells. The maximum benefit is achieved by eating raw garlic.

Kelp is a seaweed which tops the list of therapeutic Chinese foods for its anti-cancer properties. It is rich in many minerals and other special nutrients such as iodine. Traditional Chinese medicine believes that kelp can soften and reduce hard masses. It is also popularly used for weight control in China. It is so popular in Asian cuisine that it is considered a necessity in the Chinese and Japanese diet. Kelp soap, kelp shampoo, and kelp hair conditioners are extensively used in modern China.

Carrots. Most people already know that carrots contain high levels of beta carotene, and that beta carotene has an anti-cancer effect. Carrots are widely consumed around the world, but in many countries, especially in the West, people eat them raw. Experiments show that eating lightly-cooked carrots is much more beneficial than eating raw carrots, which confirms the ancient wisdom in traditional Chinese medicine. Traditional Chinese medicine practitioners have always recommended that their patients eat lightly-cooked carrots in order to get the best nutritional absorption. Recent research by Dr. Xiangdong Wang at Tufts University shows that beta carotene can change in the human body into a substance called retinoic acid, which is widely used to treat cancers.

Cauliflower. In ancient times, Chinese medicine texts set out the theory that foods which look like tumors have an anti-tumor effect. In the West, the theory that "like treats like" is called the "Doctrine of Signatures." Cauliflower, which looks exactly like a cancer tumor, has long been a folk remedy against cancer. Recently, its effects on cancer have been proven scientifically: it contains many cancer-fighting, hormone-regulating compounds, and is especially good for the prevention of breast and colon cancers.

An Anti-cancer Recipe: Chinese Stir-fry Vegetables
1 teaspoon olive oil
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon of vinegar
1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger root
1 teaspoon sliced garlic
2 cups sliced cabbage
2 cups sliced shiitake mushroom 
1 cup sliced carrot
1 cup fresh soy bean sprouts
Heat a wok with olive oil. Add ginger root and garlic and stir-fry for one minute. Add cabbage, carrot, shiitake mushroom and soy bean sprouts and stir-fry for 4 minutes. Add vinegar and soy sauce and stir-fry for a few seconds. Serve with rice.