Mary Galeria of Ventura County, California, was 50 years old when she started experiencing some unusual problems with her intestines.

She thought she had developed irritable bowel syndrome, or something like it. But with a house full of busy kids and a husband working long hours as a narcotics detective, she didn’t worry about it too much. That is, until she began passing a lot of blood in her stool.

When she finally saw a doctor for a colonoscopy, the diagnosis was grim. It was Stage 3 colon cancer that had spread to her lymph nodes. Six months of chemotherapy helped beat the cancer into remission. Five years later, Galeria still has a clean bill of health.

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Unfortunately, the odds are not always positive for people diagnosed with colon cancer. It’s the No. 2 killer among the different types of cancer (lung cancer is first) when both sexes are combined — more than 50,000 people die every year. And the effects of chemotherapy are brutal.

But new research from Penn State University is focusing on nutrition-based ways to protect against and even treat cancer. Associate professor Jairam K. P. Vanamala, an associate professor of food sciences at Penn State’s Hershey Cancer Institute, recently conducted a study using baked purple potatoes to treat mice with colon cancer. The baked potato extract suppressed the spread of cancer stem cells and caused them to self-destruct.

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The starch in these colorful spuds serves as food for intestinal bacteria and starts a chain reaction that can boost the colon’s immune system, reduce inflammation, and — most surprisingly — kill cancer cells. Not only do these potatoes pack a powerful antioxidant that can help reduce the risk for cancer, they also contain a type of starch that metabolizes in the body and can work as a natural antidote.

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The next phase of research will be testing the results with humans. Vanamala says this research is specific to colon cancer because the metabolic process occurs in the intestines, but “those metabolized compounds do leech to the other parts of the body, and organs like the liver and pancreas could also be affected.”

In basic research, purple potato extract halted the spread of cancer cells.

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But Vanamala cautions against thinking of potatoes, or any cure, as a silver bullet.

“Cancer is a complex disease,” he said, “and potatoes are very effective at suppressing cancer early on, but there are many factors that can promote this illness.”

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He said he hopes to continue finding natural compounds that can both prevent and combat cancer because statistics show cancer in the U.S. is expected to rise in the coming decades.

“The combination of low nutrients, high-refined sugars, and saturated fats can all lead to inflammation and then to cancer,” he said.

The animal-based diet of many Americans also could be contributing.

“Traditionally, a plant-based diet produces a low incidence of cancer,” Vanamala said.

That may be why studying natural and nutritional cures for cancer is so promising.

Galeria, the California cancer patient, said she found nutrition to be a big part of her recovery from cancer and from chemotherapy. After she finished her treatments, she switched to a vegan diet for a few months, and she said she felt that helped to clear her body of toxins — both from the disease and from the chemo.

“I’ve always eaten like a normal American,” she said, “but now I’m more aware. I eat less red meat and limit my sugar. And I certainly don’t fry bacon anymore for breakfast.”