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A high intake of dietary fiber may play a protective role against oral, pharyngeal, and esophageal cancer, according to the results of a study published in the International Journal of Cancer.

One important goal of cancer research is to identify environmental risk factors for different types of cancer. Some factors such as diet, exercise, pollution and stress have been associated with a higher incidence of some types of cancer. Conversely, other factors have been associated with a lower incidence of some types of cancer with high exposure to one or more of them. Researchers continue to evaluate environmental factors that can either increase or reduce the risk of developing certain types of cancer so that better strategies for prevention and/or screening can be produced and implemented.

The relationship between diet and cancer is complex. Researchers have long studied this relationship in an attempt to establish risk factors as well as to identify nutrients that may actually prevent cancer. In order to establish the relationship between fiber and oral, pharyngeal and esophageal cancer, researchers conducted a case-control study in Italy between 1992 and 1997.

The study involved 902 case subjects who were hospital patients with oral cancer (271), pharyngeal cancer (327) or esophageal cancer (304). Also included in the study were 1,950 control subjects who were admitted to the same network of hospitals for various non-cancerous conditions. All subjects were interviewed during their hospital stays and responded to food frequency questionnaires. The researchers used the data obtained from these questionnaires to calculate odds ratios after adjusting for age, sex and other potential confounding factors such as alcohol and tobacco consumption.

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The results indicated that the individuals in the highest quintile of fiber intake were about half as likely to develop one of the three cancers than those in the lowest quintile of fiber intake. The inverse relationship was similar for vegetable fiber, fruit fiber and grain fiber. The association was somewhat stronger for oral and pharyngeal cancer than for esophageal cancer.

The researchers concluded that fiber intake might be protective against oral, pharyngeal and esophageal cancer. While more research is needed to further define the relationship between fiber and these cancers, the results are promising and add to the growing body of information linking diet and cancer. (International Journal of Cancer, Vol. 91, No. 3, pp. 283-287, 2001).