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Health lessons for Indian Americans

February 25, 2008 15:22 IST

A recent convention on cancer awareness and prevention in New Jersey had a wealth of information for the Indian American community.

Participating physicians and health specialists underlined the importance of physical activity and diet in preventing not just cancer but other conditions such as diabetes and heart disease.

The event, organized by the Jeeyar Educational Trust's New Jersey chapter in Monmouth Junction, commemorated World Cancer Day -- February 4.

On healthy eating, Girija Ayyala, a nutritionist in Patchogue, New York, pointed to the American Institute for Cancer Research/American Cancer Society recommendation that one's dinner plate should be filled 2/3rd to 3/4th with fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes (such as beans and dal). The diet should be low in processed foods and animal products.

Ayyala demarcated between calorie-dense foods like ice cream -- many parents were seen nudging their children as she spoke -- and low-calorie foods like broccoli or okra.

Half a cup of ice cream holds about 170 calories, she said, against a cup of broccoli that has about 25. Vegetables fill you up faster, whereas the excess sugar in ice cream causes an insulin spike (insulin is a hormone that causes cells to absorb sugar) that makes you hungry again, she said.

One must have eight or nine servings of fruits and vegetables every day, she added.

Outside the auditorium at Crossroads South Middle School, where the convention took place, organizers had placed celery sticks, bananas and carrots in addition to cookies, corn chips and coffee. About 60 people were present.

Ayyala also pointed out the benefits of 'chemopreventive' agents such as dietary fiber, (found in whole grains), chlorophyll (found in green leafy vegetables) and quercetin (found in the onion family) as well as herbs like garlic, ginger, anise, cilantro, coriander, cumin and fennel that many Indian families use in cooking.

For healthy living, one must limit consumption of salty foods, she said, as studies have shown them to increase the risk of developing stomach cancer. Salt consumption should be limited to one teaspoon a day (which has 2,400 mg of sodium). One must watch out for salt as certain foods, like bread, frozen meals, cookies, chips and breakfast cereals, may contain it without tasting salty.

Specialists measure weight in two terms -- body mass index and waist circumference. BMI, a measure of body fat, is calculated by dividing weight with height. A BMI between 18.5 and 24.5 is normal. Waist circumference (associated with an increased risk of diabetes and heart disease) should be less than 37 inches for men and below 31.5 inches for women.

"Excess fat around the waist acts like a hormone pump," Ayyala said.

It triggers release of the female hormone estrogen into the bloodstream, which has been shown to stimulate the body's cells to divide more rapidly, and that in turn is associated with an increased risk for cancer.

Dr Purnachander Rao Sirikonda, a paediatrician in Hackensack, New Jersey, who offered free health check-ups that day with another physician, Dr Saritha Regulapati, spoke about cancer prevention and care in children. Fourteen out of 100,000 children in the United States are diagnosed with cancer; among common childhood cancers are leukemia and brain tumors.

The causes of cancer in children are obviously not lifestyle choices such as smoking or drinking, Sirikonda said, but gene mutations have been shown to have a link.

Prevention starts well before a woman gets pregnant, he said, adding that taking prenatal vitamins and folic acid six months before conception have been shown to guard against neural tube defects (defects of the brain and spinal cord).

Sirikonda spoke about the importance of monthly breast exam in girls and testicular exams in boys. Success rate in testicular cancer treatment is as high as 100 per cent, he pointed out. A lot of care is required when a child is diagnosed with cancer, he said. The team working with the physicians includes not just the family but also a play therapist, art therapist, social worker and others.

The Hackensack University Medical Center is among the best facilities in New Jersey, and Sloan Kettering Cancer Center is recognized in the world, he added.

On the prevention front, he said children must be encouraged to spend more time running, roller-blading, cycling, swimming and coaxed to watching television or playing computer games less.

Make fruits a part of every meal, avoid smoked meats, practice sun safety and maintain a healthy weight, he suggested. "A lot of parents tell me they don't smoke in front of their children," he said, "but the particles do travel home on their clothes."

He informed the audience about the vaccine, Gardisil, for girls and women between ages 9 and 24, which is designed to prevent infection by the human papillomavirus, one of the causes of cervical cancer. In addition, babies are vaccinated against Hepatitis B (which is shown to put individuals at increased risk of liver cancer).

Guest speakers included Vasudeva Ginjala, who provided an update on cancer research and drug development, and Sreenivas Tanikella, who spoke about causes, symptoms, methods of diagnosis and treatment of cancer.

The Jeeyar Educational Trust, which organized the event, was established by Chinna Jeeyar Swami in 1983. Its cancer screening program, launched in Andhra Pradesh, India in October 2007, involves a mobile clinic van that visits villages. It is helping construct houses and a school for victims of the tsunami in Andhra Pradesh.

Among the other World Cancer Day events the trust's various chapters hosted was walkathons in San Jose and Phoenix, guest lectures in Houston and Sugarland, Texas, and a meeting in Chicago.
Monika Joshi