Over the course of the last decade, food has increasingly become a popular subject. Book sales promoting a broad range of dietary approaches have increased, we have more access today to the culinary practices of different cuisines from around the world, and a wide range of cooking programmes and competitions are projected into our living rooms on a weekly basis with popular reality TV shows capturing our attention and imagination in the kitchen. Food is also an important topic of conversation among many who are health conscious or trying to manage serious health conditions.
As a source of nutrition, food has played an integral role in the health of individuals and communities since the dawn of time, being no less important today than it was thousands of years ago. For many around the world, food is also entwined with culture. Certain foods and the way they are prepared is symbolic of particular rituals and celebrations; bound up with beliefs, laws and daily practices. Some religions pay specific attention to certain foods which are central to certain spiritual practices, strengthening religious communities. It’s not surprising that food and eating together in community often feature in the pages of Holy books.
I’ve written before about my relationship with food in the years prior to my diagnosis of breast cancer. In a nutshell, I saw food as a practical necessity – nothing more. I was far too busy to spend time preparing meals and so, whilst I did prepare meals from scratch for my growing family, they were high in carbohydrates and low in nutrients; macaroni cheese, spaghetti bolognaise, pizza dishes etc. These dishes would fill everybody up but, whilst tasty, were not necessarily nurturing nutritionally – I hadn’t been doing myself or my family any favours! My diagnosis of cancer early in 2006 caused me to ask the question, “Are we what we eat?”
We’ve all heard it before, “We are what we eat…” but, can we confidently say that food makes a noticeable difference to our health? It seems so! The heart foundation, various diabetes societies and government data collection sites for cancer etc. from around the world, cite poor diet as a player in the development & exacerbation of such conditions. Despite this though, advice and information regarding diet is still thin on the ground, particularly from oncology departments and specialists. Food, however, really can make a difference! It takes time to repair our bodies which is why, if we are going to include nutrition as a support to our healing, we must look at it as an ongoing commitment. What we eat today contributes towards the cells of our tomorrow.
There are several specific nutritional approaches to cancer. When you research anti – cancer diets there are a few that stand out because they’ve gained some traction over the years and have some pretty compelling anecdotal success stories. Some of these have been around for decades, others have developed as our understanding of cancer has grown in more recent years – some of the most common are listed as follows:
- The Budwig Diet
- The Kelly Diet
- The NORI Protocol
- The Alkaline/Acid Diet
- The Gerson Therapy
- The Cancer Ketogenic Diet
Broadly speaking, all these approaches aim to affect mechanisms that cancer cells use. Some are designed to minimise the ‘fuel’ cancer cells require to maintain their vibrancy and slow down proliferation; some enhance healthy tissue around tumours and most approaches reduce inflammation in the body. All these dietary strategies report benefits to the immune and digestive system and consequently the health of our hormone systems. Anecdotal evidence certainly supports the success of these nutritional approaches for many, but not all.
Over the years I have utilised all the approaches listed above at some time or another…always for a minimum of three months and in some cases for as long as fourteen months (one approach at a time!) With the exception of the NORI protocol and the Cancer Ketogenic Diet, all these approaches had very clear benefits for me and had a marked effect upon how well I felt, the management of my disease and my energy levels. However, many of them (except for the acid/alkaline approach) required diligence and tremendous self-discipline. Dietary approaches such as those listed require strict adherence to their specific protocols and can be incredibly time consuming to prepare. Whilst I was amazingly well physically when using these dietary approaches, most of them took their toll on my social enjoyment of eating in company and preparing meals for my family. Fear around the consequences of ‘cheating’ whilst using these approaches held me to their rigid protocols, ensuring I was tightly controlling their particular nutritional approach to managing my health. I was physically well…but miserable! The emotional stress I experienced was very real.
Today, thirteen+ years post diagnosis, and despite living since 2010 with metastasised cancer, I’m more relaxed about my nutritional approach, despite being classified as ‘palliative.’ The reason for this is that I looked at the relevance of the ‘common elements’ of these approaches using them as my basis for eating to ensure I am well nourished. The common factor amongst the diets listed above are:
- they are all plant based, wholefood approaches
- they all generally follow the 80:20 Alkaline/Acid ratio
- because they are all vegetarian approaches, with much reduced consumption of dairy foods, they affect the angiogenic mechanisms of tumours (development of their own blood vessels)
As a ‘verging on vegan’ vegetarian I follow the principles of eating seasonal ‘raw’ foods in the summer and warming foods during winter months…this traditional approach made sense to me and was incredibly ‘freeing’ after the rigid applications of the anti-cancer dietary approaches I’d utilised previously.
Each of us respond differently to foods. Because of this it is important that we take responsibility for understanding how foods affect us; the foods we tolerate and the habits we have around food. For us to use nutrition in a useful way we need to:
1. Develop our own food awareness
- physical responses (moods, lethargy/energy, headaches …)
- food allergies (these promote inflammation which in turn aggravates cancer)
- the balance of carbohydrates/fats/proteins (many of us have developed a ‘sweet tooth’, use additional salt and consume a lot of simple carbohydrate foods etc.)
2. Set initial boundaries around…
- foods to avoid (this will ensure we enjoy the foods in our diet)
- foods to include (this will cater for the needs of our body and can be used as a therapeutic tool – much like we use any oncology approach)
- how much and how often we eat (many of us snack unnecessarily, eat larger portions than we need, are driven to eat according to how we feel…when we’re bored, miserable etc.)
3. Understand our needs in relation to the diagnosis we have
It is important to understand the relationship between food and our diagnosis. For example, if your cancer diagnosis is prostate, testicular, breast, ovarian or uterine there is every chance that the sex hormones have an impact on the cancer cells. Consuming dairy and meat can add to the burden of an already overloaded hormone system. It is known that any dairy product derived from milk is going to contain trace amounts of oestrogen which is why the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in Australia, New Zealand and the European Union do not permit the additional use of hormones to promote milk production. There is still controversy regarding any negative impact that dairy products may have on hormone driven cancers. For me though, because the research into this area is inconclusive, the question became, “am I willing to take the risk?” A recent study (2017) has linked specific dairy foods to a higher risk of breast cancer ¹ raising potential concern. I choose to avoid dairy whilst I have active cancer because I prefer to be cautious whilst studies are still flagging some concern.
One of the reasons I choose to enjoy a plant based diet is the benefit that a diet high in fibre has. Studies have shown that fibre is beneficial in flushing out excess hormones improving the prognosis of those with breast cancer.² In addition, a review of studies concluded that there seems to be links between better survival after breast cancer by ‘eating foods containing fibre’, ‘eating foods containing soy’ and ‘a lower intake of total fat and in particular, saturated fat.’ ³ All good reasons to consciously understand and feel confident about how and why I choose to eat the foods I do.
Finally, understanding that the digestion of our food is critical to the functioning of our body is an important consideration to experiencing peace with what we eat. The way our body responds to food is a vital consideration in healing. The four key areas I base my nutritional approach on are:
1. Reduce/eliminate sugar, meat, dairy and refined foods
2. Increase vegetable and fruit intake and eat produce that is in season and grown locally
3. Eat organic foods (grown in nutrient dense soils) when possible
4. Maintain good hydration by drinking filtered water
Is There a Point to Using a Specific Anti – Cancer Diet?
In my experience, both personally and through the work I do with those living with cancer, when a person receives a diagnosis of cancer, often their diet will have had an impact on how effectively their digestive and immune system is functioning. One of the first things I do as a practitioner, is look at the nutritional history of a client. This alerts me to the understanding a client has about the role of nutrition in supporting their health and whether there are changes in their diet that might support a better health outcome.
If you do consider it necessary to implement a specific anti – cancer dietary approach it is important to know why the approach you are opting for is going to benefit you. I’ve said it before…and I’ll say it again…many of the anti-cancer dietary approaches require self – discipline and a lot of preparation – weighing ingredients, searching for recipes, specific equipment (juicers, food mill…) and a rigid timetable to your day to ensure the nutritional protocol chosen, is adhered to. Having support in implementing and sticking with an anti-cancer dietary approach is key for the patient. It is certainly worthwhile considering, particularly if your diagnosis is affecting your day to day life, is creating a sense of urgency in regard to your prognosis or you want to attain a strong sense of wellbeing before you begin any oncology treatment.
The emotional impact of receiving a cancer diagnosis weighs heavily on the emotional stress the body experiences. Unless your diagnosis is life threatening in the short term, there is no urgent need to implement a strict, anti-cancer approach. For many, adding a strict dietary regime to the emotional stress of a cancer diagnosis becomes another burden to carry and adjust to…just imagine weighing EVERY ingredient, sourcing sometimes unfamiliar ingredients, juicing with fresh ingredients EVERY hour to consume thirteen juices a day…for months…all this can take its toll unless you have a partner or carer who is willing to shoulder some of these tasks for you. Because of this, shifting your dietary approach to vegetarian (and preferably vegan) is by far the least stressful beneficial dietary approach and one you are most likely to stick with over the long term when you’re dealing with a chronic health condition such as cancer.
Eating foods that you know have an impact on strengthening the functions of your body, supports clear thinking and enhances your levels of energy is reason enough to be mindful about what you eat. If you are living with a cancer diagnosis or rebuilding your health post treatment, understanding that specific foods can weaken the activities of cancer cells…daughter cells and stem cells…offer even more reason to celebrate eating foods that have a beneficial purpose.
Food is meant to nurture and sustain us physically and emotionally. Preparing a tasty meal and sharing it with family or friends is one of the more enjoyable activities I do. Today I can enjoy the process of preparing and sharing a meal without feeling overwhelmed, fearful and mistrusting of the foods I am eating. Gaining knowledge and understanding how I relate and respond to the foods I need enable me to recognise and feel confident about the benefits of a ‘verging on vegan’ vegetarian approach to managing my health and maintaining wellness.
With that has come far more peace with what I eat.
- Susan E McCann, Justine Hays, Charlotte W Baumgart, Edward H Weiss, Song Yao, Christine B Ambrosone, Usual Consumption of Specific Dairy Foods Is Associated with Breast Cancer in the Roswell Park Cancer Institute Data Bank and BioRepository, Current Developments in Nutrition, Volume 1, Issue 3, March 2017, e000422, https://doi.org/10.3945/cdn.117.000422
- Gold EB, Pierce JP, Natarajan L, et al. Dietary pattern influences breast cancer prognosis in women without hot flashes: the women’s healthy eating and living trial. J Clin Oncol. 2009;27(3):352–359. doi:10.1200/JCO.2008.16.1067 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2645853/
- World Cancer Research Fund International/American Institute for Cancer Research Continuous Update Project Report: Diet, Nutrition, Physical Activity, and Breast Cancer Survivors. 2014. Available at: www.wcrf.org/sites/default/files/Breast-Cancer-Survivors-2014-Report.pdf