Inflammation and Cancer

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If you think inflammation only impacts your hands or heart, think again. Sadly, inflammation is directly connected to the development of cancer. While heart disease is certainly deadly, the word cancer stops most people in their tracks. This week we’ll focus on how reducing inflammation can reduce your risk for the big C.

Inflammation impacts the risk of cancer in a number of different ways. For starters, approximately a quarter of all cancer-causing factors are due to infection and inflammation. Free radical exposure from toxins such as asbestos, pollution, smoking, and some medications not only damage DNA but may also impact protein and lipids, which can affect their function.1

Chronic inflammation due to obesity and/or components in our food may also impact the risk of cancer. Adipokines (inflammatory fat cells) promote inflammation and impact pain, but also raise cancer risk.

Why weight matters

Globally, the risk of cancer due to obesity is nearly 12% in men and a little over 13% in women. That extra weight has been connected to at least 13 types of cancer such as endometrial, esophageal, kidney, pancreatic, liver, stomach, meningioma, multiple myeloma, colorectal, postmenopausal breast, ovarian, gallbladder, and thyroid cancers.2

Multiple mechanisms may be at play that raises the risk including insulin resistance, dysfunction of the IGF-1 system (insulin growth factor), oxidative stress, chronic low-grade inflammation, and production of sex hormones involved in hormone-based cancer such as breast and prostate cancer.2 Excess body weight may also impact the body’s ability of cancer cells to multiply.

Obesity is specifically a risk factor for pancreatic cancer, which is rare but often fatal. It’s estimated that 53,000 Americans are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer annually. Of those that are diagnosed, 71% have a life expectancy of a year while only 8% live up to 5 years past diagnosis. While the cause of pancreatic cancer is unknown, insulin resistance, chronic inflammation, and altered intestinal microbiome (all related to obesity) have been suggested to have a carcinogenic effect.3

The consumption of soft drinks is not only related to obesity but also linked with pancreatic cancer. A 2010 study of over 60,000 people in Singapore found that those consuming 2 or more soft drinks per week were 87% more likely to develop pancreatic cancer. Other high glycemic food and beverages (such as juice and high sugar sweets) may also impact weight and risk for pancreatic cancer.4

Beyond the scale

While losing weight is one way to combat cancer, what’s on your plate clearly makes a difference. The most common cancer in women is breast cancer while lung and colorectal cancer are seen more frequently in men. Breast cancer is on the rise particularly in post-menopausal women.5 Weight control throughout the lifespan is important in reducing breast cancer risk in postmenopausal women as is the regular exercise of 150 minutes per week. Limiting alcohol to 3 drinks per week or less has also been found to reduce the risk of breast cancer.6

A Mediterranean-type diet may also be beneficial in the prevention and treatment of breast cancer. A literature review from 2019 shows that reducing saturated fat and red meat and including more whole grain cereals, fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and olive oil may improve survival during breast cancer treatment such as chemo and radiation therapy. Some research also suggests EPA and DHA (found in fatty fish) reduce side effects of treatment.7

Fruit and vegetable intake may also reduce the risk of lung cancer, though is not as significant in smokers. Researchers find preventive benefits for every 100 grams of fruits and vegetables consumed with no increased benefit in intake beyond 400 grams per day. To put this in perspective, a small apple weighs roughly 130 grams.8 Polyphenols including equol, kaempferol, resveratrol, ellagic acid, gallic acid, p-Coumaric from common foods such as broccoli, kale, spinach, soybeans, berries, green tea, grapes, walnuts, and pecans may also be protective against lung cancer.9 These compounds in food aid in the reduction of free radicals and inflammation.

On your plate:

  • Add greens to more meals. For example, add spinach or broccoli in eggs, kale, and collards to soup, salad, and grain bowls.
  • Sip on green tea. A good source of ellagic acid, green tea may aid in tumor reduction.10
  • Kick the can. Give up soda and switch to water or flavored seltzer water.
  • Snack on nuts instead of chips or cookies. Add them to oats, yogurt, trail mix, and salads.
  • Get moving! Exercise lowers insulin levels, body fat, and stress- something we could all use these days.

Lisa Andrews, MEd, RD, LD


  1. Murata M. Inflammation and cancer. Environ Health Prev Med. 2018 Oct 20;23(1):50.
  2. Avgerinos KI, Spyrou N, Mantzoros CS, Dalamaga M. Obesity, and cancer risk: Emerging biological mechanisms and perspectives. Metabolism. 2019 Mar;92:121-135.
  3. Xu M, Jung X, Hines OJ, Eibl G, Chen Y. Obesity and Pancreatic Cancer: Overview of Epidemiology and Potential Prevention by Weight Loss. Pancreas. 2018 Feb;47(2):158-162
  4. Mueller NT, Odegaard A, Anderson K, Yuan JM, Gross M, Koh WP, Pereira MA. Soft drink and juice consumption and risk of pancreatic cancer: the Singapore Chinese Health Study. Cancer Epidemiol Biomarkers Prev. 2010 Feb;19(2):447-55.
  5. American Cancer Society: Cancer Facts and Figures 2020. Atlanta, Ga: American Cancer Society, 2020.
  6. Harvie M, Howell A, Evans DG. Can diet and lifestyle prevent breast cancer: what is the evidence? Am Soc Clin Oncol Educ Book. 2015:e66-73
  7. De Cicco P, Catani MV, Gasperi V, Sibilano M, Quaglietta M, Savini I. Nutrition and Breast Cancer: A Literature Review on Prevention, Treatment, and Recurrence. Nutrients. 2019 Jul 3;11(7):1514.
  8. Vieira AR, Abar L, Vingeliene S, Chan DS, Aune D, Navarro-Rosenblatt D, Stevens C, Greenwood D, Norat T. Fruits, vegetables and lung cancer risk: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Ann Oncol. 2016 Jan;27(1):81-96.
  9. Jeong H, Phan ANH, Choi JW. Anti-cancer Effects of Polyphenolic Compounds in Epidermal Growth Factor Receptor Tyrosine Kinase Inhibitor-resistant Non-small Cell Lung Cancer. Pharmacogn Mag. 2017 Oct-Dec;13(52):595-599
  10. Shirakami Y, Shimizu M. Possible Mechanisms of Green Tea and Its Constituents against Cancer. Molecules. 2018 Sep 7;23(9):2284.

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