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Ja'Nel Johnson/MEDILL

Paul Olczak, of Evanston, drinks coffee because he likes it, not to prevent prostate cancer.

Controversy brewing. Can coffee prevent cancer?

by Ja'Nel Johnson
June 03, 2011


Ja'Nel Johnson/MEDILL

Coffee drinkers said they come to coffee shops, such as Kafein, for the ambience.

Prostate Cancer

National Cancer Insitute/Ja'Nel Johnson

From 2004-2008, men between the ages of 65 and 74 made up the largest number of new diagnosis for prostate cancer.

Breast Cancer II

National Cancer Institute/Ja'Nel Johnson

From 2004-2008, women between the ages of 55-64 made up tha largest number of new diagnosis for breast cancer.

Should you drink five or six cups of coffee a day to try to prevent cancer? Millions of people are asking themselves this question following research suggesting coffee lowers the risk of breast and prostate cancer.

In the past, reports that coffee lead to insomnia, nervousness, restlessness, irritability, digestive problems and muscle tremors gave the beverage a bad rap. But new studies in recent years have shown that coffee can actually provide health benefits.

The latest research suggests that coffee can help prevent prostate cancer and breast cancer, the sceond most common cancers in men and women, respectively.

Researchers at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm found that drinking coffee reduces the risk of antiestrogen-resistant estrogen- receptor (ER)- negative breast cancer among postmenopausal women. The study was published in May in the journal Breast Cancer Research.

“Women who drank five cups of coffee a day had a 57 percent lower risk for ER-negative cancer than those who drank less than one cup a day,” said Jingmei Li, author of the study.

She said ER-positive and ER-negative cancers are generally considered biologically distinct diseases and have been associated with remarkably different gene expression profiles.

Researchers tested 5,929 women between the ages of 50 and 74. Questionnaires were used to assess behavioral and health characteristics including coffee consumption, smoking and drinking patterns, physical activity routines, family history of breast cancer, hormone therapy protocols, nutritional intake, body mass index and education level, according to Li.

Lizette White,43, of Evanston, isn’t a regular coffee drinker, but when she does have a taste for the beverage, she usually goes to Kafein located in downtown Evanston. She said she found the research to be interesting, but not a reason to drink more coffee.

“If there were actual proof that there was a big difference, I might boost my coffee consumption a little bit, but I don’t think I would ever be the person drinking five cups a day,” White said.

Li said the study didn’t collect specific information on what kind of coffee was consumed and that the research doesn’t prove a cause-and-effect relationship.

“Before I go tell my neighbors to start drinking more coffee than they already do, I would like to know what is the biological mechanism at work here?,” Li said.

Researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health found in another study, that the biologically active compounds in coffee may lower the risk of lethal prostate cancer. The research was published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute last month.

Men, who drank six or more cups of coffee a day, had an 18 percent lower risk of prostate cancer compared with men who did not drink coffee. Caffeine wasn’t found to be a factor in the study because those who drank decaf had the same protection as those who drank regular coffee.

Dr. Gerald Chodak, a former University of Chicago urologist who now consults and educates people about prostate cancer, said doctors can’t recommend patients to drink more coffee based on the study.
“It doesn’t prove cause and effect,” he said.

Researchers tested 47,911 men between the ages of 40 and 74 from 1986 to 2006. As in the breast cancer study, participants were given questionnaires to assess their coffee intake and food habits. Starting in 1986, participants reported their intake of regular and decaffeinated coffee every four years. The study was adjusted for smoking, obesity and other variables.

Chodak, author of the new book "Winning the Battle Against Prostate Cancer," said researchers did a good job and that the information is recent, but it’s not enough to tell people to change their behavior.
“You tell people if they’re going to change their behavior it should be based on a study that has a clear result and this study design does not do that,” he said. “It might be true, but it might not be. And you don’t know the adverse effects of drinking six cups of coffee.”

Howard Soule, chief science officer at the Prostate Cancer Foundation in Santa Monica, Calif., said the research is an interesting observation. He said although it’s an important finding that should be tested, it’s not likely researchers are going to do an experiment.

“This is an observational study that generated the finding that six cups of coffee result in less prostate cancer,” he said. “It’s not a prospective clinical trial.”

Soule said that researchers believe the antioxidants associated with coffee beans protect tissues from environmental insults that cause cancer. He said people should consult with their doctors before making any changes.

“If they’re going to start drinking six cups of coffee a day, they need to talk to their doctor first and hopefully their doctor is well informed,” he said.

Paul Olczak, 26, of Evanston, found the research interesting since his father has late-stage prostate cancer, but doesn’t think the findings affect his life. He said he drinks four or five cups of coffee a day because he likes it. He said as an engineer, drinking coffee is the thing to do.

“It’s like a social norm,” he said. “If you don’t drink black coffee, you’re less of an engineer.”

Joseph DeRupo, director of external member relations and communications at the National Coffee Association, said 58 percent of all Americans drink coffee every day and the average number of cups per day is 3.4 per coffee drinker.

He said all of the research is welcomed by coffee drinkers who want to know that drinking coffee is good for them.

“Instead of having them drink more, it will stop them from feeling a need to drink less because there are no longer those old negative myths,” he said. “They have all been debunked.”

DeRupo said the science behind the healing powers of coffee makes sense.

“There are health benefits that come from this natural product,” he said. “It’s a bean that’s grown naturally and like any natural plant, it has many properties.”

Martin Zeff, 24, of Evanston, is also a regular customer at Kafein. He said although studies report coffee being good for those who consume it, he doesn’t plan to increase his coffee intake.

“I feel like if I drink six cups of coffee a day, maybe I wouldn’t have prostate cancer, but I’d be too twitchy to live in a normal environment,” he said. “That is way too much caffeine for one person to ever drink in a day.”