For the past seven years, I’ve been managing abnormal Pap test results. An abnormal Pap result typically means your cervical cells are changing due to the human papillomavirus (HPV), which is linked to cervical cancer. After my initial Pap results, I had a biopsy, and then a Loop Electrosurgical Excision Procedure (LEEP), where abnormal cervical cells are removed and prevented from turning into cancer, but I still have to monitor my risk. My OB/GYN’s biggest piece of advice? Look into a vegan diet and stay away from smoking. Never a smoker, but always a meat-eater, I took this advice seriously.
While research on this subject is ongoing, there are well-documented links between a plant based diet and a lower risk of cancer, according to the American Institute for Cancer Research. “Almost all abnormal Pap smears are caused by an infection of the human papillomavirus,” Dr. Corey Babb, D.O., an OB/GYN at OSU Medicine, tells Bustle. “Foods or diets that help boost the immune system can (theoretically) help either prevent an abnormal Pap smear, or cure abnormal cells if they are there.”
After my abnormal Pap results, I noticed how much my life revolved around carbs, meat, and cheese. Of course, I had my moments of greens, my spurts of fruits, but overall, my eating habits would not have been considered “healthy.” When I lived on food stamps for two years, I easily fell into purchasing snacks and resorting through quick meals at a drive thru. My funds were limited, and my health was put on the back burner.
Though going vegan or making other lifestyle changes aren't guaranteed ways to eliminate your cancer risk, this experience made me realize I had no other option but to begin taking care of myself and my body, as it’s the only one I have. My squamous lesions (aka, my abnormal cells) are precancerous, meaning that they can change from “low-grade” to “high grade.” Low grade is when they may not turn into cancer for several years, where high grade is when they can turn into cancer much sooner. I had high grade lesions, which the LEEP was able to remove. But these cells can come back. A LEEP is supposed to prevent cancerous cells from returning, but many patients have to have several LEEPs, which means the cervix is cut into and parts are removed (causing concerns with pregnancy later on in life). In order to prevent any future LEEPs, or cancer, the only substantial preventative treatment is lifestyle changes like what I eat.
Kate Callaghan, a holistic nutritionist, tells Bustle, “When we eat a balanced diet, filled with a variety of nutritious foods, we are giving our body access to a greater range of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, proteins, fats and carbs.” This is helpful in terms of promoting your immune response and your body’s ability to cope with illness, but can also improve risk of developing cancer. “It’s also about avoiding those foods that are pro-inflammatory, such as processed vegetable oils, sugars and artificial sweeteners, refined grains, and artificial food additives, flavors and colors,” Callaghan says.
Babb says, “Too much inflammation can lead to decreased healing of those target tissues/cells. As such, diets that reduce system wide inflammation may be beneficial in reducing the effects of HPV on the cervix or other target tissues.” Research has found that many foods, like broccoli, cabbage, radish, and watercress, have anticancer components. Moreover, many leafy greens produce isothiocyanates (ITCs), and have anticancer effects. Further, a 2009 study published in the International Journal of Cancer found that, “a healthy and balanced diet leading to provide high serum levels of antioxidants may reduce cervical neoplasia risk in low‐income women.”
There is evidence that foods that are anti-inflammatory play an important role in healing the cervix and fighting the HPV infection, but what happens when this type of diet is not accessible to everyone? For low-income people, or those living in food deserts, access to a nutritious diet may be out of reach — and that can have a major impact on health outcomes. According to the American Cancer Society, Latinx women have the "highest evidence of cervical cancer," and Black women have the "highest mortality," and a 2014 survey of 338 women published in the Journal of Lower Genital Tract Disease found that these discrepancies may be due to lower screening rates and limited knowledge of cervical cancer in these populations. Approximately 530,000 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer every year worldwide, and over 275,000 women die from it. These deaths largely occur in low- and middle-income countries.
Aside from lifestyle changes, it’s essential that people with a cervix have regular screenings. There are few outward symptoms of cervical cancer, hence the nickname the “silent killer.” But going vegan is by no means a guarantee to reducing the possibility of cancer or eliminating it. Babb says that “research in this is lacking ... at least in more traditional medical publications. You’ll find some information in more of the naturopathic and alternative medical literature, but that suffers from its own degree of bias and other potential issues.”
Cervical cancer treatment depends on age, type of cancer, all around health, and desire to have children. Apart from regular Pap tests, the Gardasil vaccination is the best preventative option for people of all genders aged 9 through 26, as it can protect the body from the strains of HPV that can cause cancer. Practicing safe sex, quitting smoking, and being educated on HPV and cervical cancer are other interventions in preventing cervical cancer, Planned Parenthood says.
If you’re looking to reduce your cervical cancer risk through going vegan, Callaghan suggests that people “start slow” with the new lifestyle change. “It’s not about being perfect all of the time. We are human, so we need to allow a bit of wiggle room for those ‘less than healthy’ foods, and focus on what we are doing day to day, rather than every now and then.”
I’ll be the first to admit it hasn’t been easy. I have struggled and slipped when it comes to my health. But at the end of the day, it’s essential to focus on the goal, and to ensure that you are giving your body the care that it deserves.