“How can I go forward when I don’t know which way I’m facing?” – John Lennon
Our understanding of cancer is undergoing a revolution. Ever since the 1960s, research has focussed on understanding and correcting the genetic abnormalities found in cancer cells but it is becoming increasingly clear that this is not where cancer starts. A growing number of eminent researchers both in and outside the ‘establishment’ are starting to talk about cancer as a disease which starts with ‘reprogrammed metabolism’ – acknowledging that the very earliest changes that happen as healthy cells turn cancerous are to do with the way the cells make their energy and utilise their nutrients. Which puts nutrition right at the centre of the stage.
Cancer starts with problems in your ’tissue microenvironment’ (as Dr Mina Bissel would say) which means all the nutrients and gases and cell signalling molecules that are surrounding the tumour giving it permission to grow… or not.
Thanks in part to the groundbreaking work of Dr Candace B. Pert, we know that tumour cells respond to all sorts of messages: stress and sex hormones, endorphins and neurotransmitters, vitamins and minerals, diet and exercise. And, while researchers are busy trying to manufacture expensive drugs that will mimic the magic messages, the simple fact is that following a healthy diet and lifestyle is the best known way to switch your internal comms environment from self-destruct to ‘live long and prosper’.
Changing your nutrition and lifestyle habits can transform the tumour microenvironment, or metabolic milieu, by supporting healthy biochemistry and gene expression to make your body as hostile to cancer as possible. It’s a bit like restarting your computer – clearing the biochemical confusion that allowed cancer to thrive, and rebooting the cellular environment to allow your systems to function properly again.
Free-thinking researchers and open-minded medics are looking to exploit any weakness that cancer cells may have compared with healthy cells, and they are trying an increasingly wide range of strategies in their search. We already know that around 90% of cancers are caused by poor diet and lifestyle choices, so it makes perfect sense that nutrition has a role to play in treatment and survival. Below is a link to a study that outlines how a progressive cancer clinic used a combination of chemotherapy, targeted nutrition, oxygen therapy and heat to create an astounding outcome for a young woman with advanced triple negative breast cancer:
Treatments like this give us a glimpse of the future of cancer care, but it will be a long time before they are judged to be effective and available on the NHS. It’s not unusual to encounter great scepticism around complementary approaches within medical oncology in the UK, and your oncologist may well tell you that changing your diet is a waste of time. But the study above, along with thousands of others, suggests that’s a blinkered view. I’m not surprised: my oncologist was one of the kindest and busiest people I ever met, he worked very long hours at the leading edge of his profession. I doubt he had time to read up on the benefits of broccoli in his free time – I don’t think he really had any free time!
So I’m not in any way being disrespectful when I ask you to bear in mind that – while all oncologists are experts in cancer treatment – most are ignorant about cancer nutrition. I’ve spent 20 years studying the nutritional aspects of cancer and the latest advances are exciting: just as promising as anything conventional medicine has to offer. And the potential benefits from a combined approach are huge! To be fair, we’re all a little bit in the dark – no one has all the answers to cancer – but the new focus on cancer metabolism means that the potential for targeted and personalised nutrition to improve outcomes during treatment and beyond is, in my view, undeniable.
If you’ve been reading already about nutrition and cancer you’ve probably heard about the ketogenic diet which aims to restrict energy supply to cancer cells, leading to cell death. It’s based on Otto Warburg’s discovery in 1928 that cancer cells need around 20 to 50 times more sugar than healthy cells. There are some exciting anecdotes, animal studies and a few human trials of the ketogenic diet and cancer. More research is needed, but it represents one of the most persuasive breakthroughs of recent decades, especially when combined with conventional treatment. It’s not a ‘miracle cure’ but it has a place within a personalised nutritional strategy for many cancer patients, together with the use of supervised intermittent fasting which is also proving to be highly effective.
Nutrition has a lot to offer not only for prevention but also to help you get the most out of treatment and to return to full health and wellbeing once treatment is over. However if you want to get the best outcome it’s advisable to get some professional advice. It’s not just a case of taking lots of Vitamin C (please don’t do that!) and drinking green smoothies laced with turmeric. If you’ve been diagnosed with cancer something has gone badly wrong with your biochemistry and you need help to put it right. We know that cancer cells thrive in very specific conditions, and nutritional therapy aims to restore a healthy tissue microenvironment that is no longer cancer-friendly.
There are many different ways that your diet and lifestyle choices can influence the pathways that we know are associated with cancer:
- Increasing the power of cancer treatment and reducing side effects
- Restricting the energy supply to cancer cells (while supporting healthy cells)
- Protecting delicate genetic material and supporting DNA repair
- Supporting healthy hormonal signalling, detoxification and elimination
- Activating cellular survival, repair and cell death mechanisms
- Reducing baseline inflammation, strongly linked to cancer development
- Correcting insulin resistance, a key factor in cancer development
- Rebalancing growth and proliferative signals in the body
- Reducing oxidative stress and free radical damage associated with cancer
- Supporting healthy gene expression
- Supporting tissue repair after treatment
- Supporting optimal metabolic status at a cellular level
- Reducing environmental exposures and supporting detoxification
All of the imbalances mentioned above are associated with cancer, and many of them are exacerbated by conventional treatment protocols. In my view it’s vitally important to address your diet choices as soon as possible after diagnosis, preferably before you start treatment, because of the potential for powerful synergy between the medical and nutritional approach. Nutritional therapy can help you feel better at every stage of the journey, both on a physical and psychological level, to support your return to health and reduce your personal risk factors for recurrence.
The combination of nutritional therapy and lifestyle coaching is a particularly powerful way to do that by fine tuning your body to function well on a physical and mental level. In fact, Bernie Seigel MD, the celebrated New York oncologist, said he could identify survivors within the first 30 seconds of meeting them, just by their attitude. They were the ones who took an active interest in their treatment, and carried a sense of personal responsibility for their future health.
My practice is designed to help you identify your risk factors and discover what to focus on for the future. Working together allows us to create a more tailored diet for you which takes into account your health history and lifestyle. We can also look more closely at your individual susceptibility with functional and genetic testing. You can read more about how that works on my consult page and by looking at client testimonials the case studies I have written about.
I do hope that everything I’ve written here has given you a clearer understanding of the potential for nutrition changes to influence cancer outcomes, and maybe given you some hope that making changes to your own diet may have the potential to improve your overall health. Please get in touch if you would like some help with that.