In 1971, president Richard Nixon declared war on cancer when he signed the National Cancer Act. At the time the scientific community was confident that we were no more than a decade away from a cure; their confidence based on a new understanding of DNA and the observation that cancer tumour cells all seemed to contain significant DNA, or gene, mutations. The road to a cure was simple: unravel the genetic code for each type of cancer; isolate the mutant gene; develop a drug to block its expression. Bingo.
We have all bought in heavily to this theory which can be roughly expressed as ‘stop the gene: stop the cancer’. Even if you don’t realise that you think of cancer as a genetic disease, you do. Even though we know that only about 5% of cancers are of the inherited gene variety, women with the faulty gene have gone to the extremes of having their breasts removed to increase their chances of a long life. Even though death rates from cancer have barely fallen since 1971, no matter which way you chop the statistics, we continue to pursue this particular holy grail with dogged determination.
Unthinkable, then, that the gene theory appears to be running out of steam. We have pitted dozens of superior wits, years of frantic activity and billions of heartfelt dollars into identifying the specific gene that codes for the biggest killer cancers. But the projects are coming up empty-handed, and the premise is falling apart. Instead of finding the one faulty gene that codes for each type of cancer, they have found thousands of different gene mutations for each cancer and sometimes several inside a single tumour. More conclusively, they have found some cancers with no evidence of gene mutation at all. If you can find a cancer without genetic malfunction, then cancer cannot be genetic disease. Period.
Meanwhile, over in another paradigm, lives a diaspora of scientists who have never been convinced by the DNA theory of cancer. Their research has centred around the metabolic activity of tumours, based on the observations of Nobel prize winning Otto Warburg, who was among the first to observe in the 1930s that cancer cells struggle to utilise oxygen. This anomaly, called the Warburg effect, means cancer cells make their energy by fermentation, or anaerobic respiration as it is more often called.
Fermentation is a messy and inefficient way to make energy; no cell would choose it if it had an alternative. The process generates cell-damaging free radicals which create havoc with delicate cell structures, including its DNA. Only cells with no access to oxygen (or damaged mitochondria) resort to fermentation. And mitochondrial damage is a feature of most cancer cells. Moreover, when you examine the short list of genes that are implicated in the cancer process – the so called oncogenes, and tumour suppressor genes – you find they are involved with mitochondrial function.
There is a growing community of scientists who think that focussing on metabolic abnormalities may be more fruitful in curing cancer than continuing to pursue increasingly remote genetic solutions; who see the future for cancer care including carefully designed diets to exploit the known weakness of almost every type of cancer: it’s dependence on sugar. For now, they are attracting a lot of attention, including a lot of flack. Only time will tell.
But if I was currently battling cancer I wouldn’t be waiting to find out. I would, without hesitation, be drastically reducing the sugars and starch content of my diet and aiming to be in ketosis for the rest of my days. Even as a 17-year survivor, that’s my strategy. Although the ketogenic diet is gaining wide acceptance for many diseases, the information around its use for cancer is new. There are only very few clinical trials carried out with very small numbers of very sick people. It’s difficult to be 100% clear about its effect but it is being looked at with optimism. There is a small but encouraging support base, from some of the most engaged and exciting medical minds, for using ketosis to extend lifespan and improve quality of life. So far, so good.
If you really can’t wait for the science to land (and why would you?) I’m attaching some links for you to follow. Please be aware that the recommendations contained in these blog posts are not mine. I haven’t had a chance to get up to speed with it all yet.
One important word: if you are a current cancer patient, don’t panic. If you are going through a particularly anxious time, you may find some of this information difficult to read, so handle with care. Continue with your current treatment regime but do everything you can to avoid sugars and carbs. Maybe download my book, The Dissident Diet, from Amazon which is written for weight loss but is suitable for all types of ketogenic needs. Try to see this as positive long term news rather than a scary short term panic. There are stories of tumours regressing in 6 weeks with ketosis, so you probably have time. Don’t make any sudden changes without talking to your medical team. Though I doubt they will be up to speed with this, if you share the information with them you may be surprised how willing they are to consider alternative scenarios.
And if you, like me, have recently lost a loved one to this dreadful disease please know that I share your feelings of sadness and loss.
Thomas Seyfried explains why he believes it’s a metabolic disease:
Dr Georgia Ede summarises Thomas Seyfried’s book:
Travis Christofferson sets out the argument in more depth:
Dominic D’Agostino talks about starving cancer