By Jillita Horton, HoneyColony Original
Diet ~ An Overlooked Treatment For Cancer
The link between diet and health (or disease) is indisputable and widely acknowledged by conventional doctors for conditions such as heart disease and diabetes. So why is diet so roundly ignored in conventional cancer treatment?
Recently I saw a young boy, pale and completely bald, at a fast-food place eating typical fast-food fare. I thought, “How can his father buy him poison to eat when he’s battling cancer?”
Of course, this boy didn’t necessarily have cancer; perhaps he had alopecia areata, a benign condition that causes baldness. Nevertheless, a gripping question entered and remained in my mind: Why isn’t diet as significant a part of conventional cancer treatment as are surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation? Isn’t it true that we are what we eat? And isn’t it true that many of today’s “chemicalized” foods promote body-wide inflammation, a precursor to cancer?
With so many of today’s foods being considered a causal factor in the development of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and other ailments, is it such a far leap to conclude that diet is intimately linked with not just the development of cancer but the destruction of cancer?
Diet is stressed in heart disease patients. It’s missing in typical cancer treatment plans, beyond perhaps a recommendation to “eat more fruits and vegetables” and “cut back on meat.” When given without clarification, simplistic directives like these can lead to results just as bad as the original diet.
For instance, “eat more vegetables” can mean filling up on more canned vegetables. “Cut back on meat” may translate to eating more heavily processed, packaged, synthetic-additive-drenched chicken dishes.
A Question Ignored
Plenty of alternative health writers have tackled the topic of the ideal diet for cancer treatment and prevention, efforts that should be applauded. But the ideal anticancer diet is not my interest here.
More specifically, this article seeks to uncover why diet takes such a backseat in conventional cancer treatment programs—and why “conventional medicine” is so reluctant to draw firm conclusions about the link between diet and cancer in the first place. More often than not, it seems conventional medicine actually discourages patients and consumers from “making too much” of the cancer-diet connection.
Case in point: Just last week, Reuters News Service put out a press release about a new study examining the link between certain foods and cancer risk, the results of which were published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
The Reuters headline? “Researchers warn consumers not to ‘over-interpret individual studies.’” The release continues: “While myriad studies link certain foods with cancer risks, the findings are unreliable and can make it harder for consumers to identify foods that actually affect their chances of getting cancer, according to a survey of 35 years of research.” This is essentially the same thing as telling people that we just don’t know anything “reliable” about diet and cancer, which simply isn’t true.
For the actual study, researchers from Stanford and Harvard teamed up to examine the first 50 food items found in randomly selected cookbook recipes. The foods included meats, fish, vegetables, dairy products, spices, and bread. They then searched medical journals for studies that linked each food item to some type of cancer risk. Does it matter if the food is organic or conventional?
The duo found that 40 of the 50 ingredients—including mustard, celery, veal, and cheese—appeared in 264 studies investigating food’s links to cancer. For most of the food items, results were conflicting. But for certain foods, the research agreed. For example, onions, carrots, and tea were consistently linked to lower cancer risk, while sugar and bacon were consistently linked to greater cancer risks.
“However, research on many foods varied significantly in their findings and were unreliable,” the researchers say. “You have all these individual studies, and people are not getting together and trying to figure out what is going on in terms of the entire picture,” Simmons College nutrition professor Teresa Fung says.
Why aren’t more researchers doing just that—looking at and talking about the big picture? And in the meantime, given what’s already known about the anticancer benefits of an all-natural, plant-based diet (despite the overcautious claims of this latest study), why aren’t more cancer doctors dedicated to advancing this topic?
Bad Teaching, Bad Medicine
“There are many reasons why diet is not stressed in cancer treatment,” says Dr. Carolyn Dean. “Most of them stem from the fact that medicine does not put any emphasis on nutrition in medical school.” Dean, who is also a medical advisory board member of the nonprofit Nutritional Magnesium Association, says that in about 3,500 hours of typical medical school training, maybe one, two, or three hours’ worth of classes are devoted to basic nutrition.
“Medicine teaches the diagnosis of disease and the treatment with drugs and surgery,” Dean adds. Medical school also teaches extensive anatomy and physiology. After medical school are internships, where interns do rotations in various specialties such as cardiology, pediatrics, and gynecology.
My niece, now a young doctor, did not learn about nutrition when she was learning how to perform a Pap smear or interpret an EKG. “The only specialty remotely related to nutrition is bariatrics—the study of obesity—where now they mostly endorse surgery,” Dean says.
“There was no time and no place for nutrition in our training,” Dean says. “We were told that a ‘good’ diet was just fine for everyone, with no consideration about organic versus conventional, or processed versus home-grown and home-cooked.” From where do most medical doctors learn about nutrition? From where most laypeople learn: the wealthy, powerful food industry.
By the time a person enters medical school, they’ve undoubtedly seen countless TV commercials that pitch a “healthy start to your day” with sugary cereal and white toast (acrylamide, anyone?).
“Doctors know nothing about nutrition,” Dean states. “In the ’70s when I was in med school and already wanted to do natural medicine, I saw that they considered dietary measures ‘women’s work.’ At most a doctor would refer someone to a dietician who gave advice within the structured guidelines of the four food groups and nothing else. Presently there is a battle royale over the ownership of dietary counseling. Dieticians want to be mandated to be the only ones to give advice, making nutritionists who give diet and supplement advice illegal.”
The Fear Factor
Dean says diet seems just too simplistic to take on something as complicated and ferocious as cancer. Ever seen a radiation machine? It looks scary, looming over the patient as it rotates.
How can anyone truly believe that a little green plant can be more effective than that imposing contraption that emits radiation? Think about it: We understand radiation as something holding the power to obliterate an entire city! Cancer is something we tend to view as “just too serious to treat with diet and too serious to think that a diet can affect it,” Dean adds.
Cancer, according to allopathic medicine, requires strong (poisonous) drugs and surgery. “This ignores the growing concern that cancer is the immune system run amok with an overload of stressors: diet, environmental, and emotional,” Dean says. “And unfortunately if you treat a toxic condition with more toxins you only make things worse. For example, many studies show that people who do no chemo do better than people who do chemo.”
The Bermuda Triangle Of Diet, Cancer, And Chemo
To ignore the link between diet and cancer is to ignore the fact that we’ve allowed modern-day food to become full of toxins. Remember acrylamide? In 2005, the FDA declared this a carcinogen (substance with the potential to cause cancer). Acrylamide is created when starch-based foods are heated, such as bread (toast) and cereal (during manufacturing)!
And then there are trans fats—ubiquitous in the American food supply—turning up even in chicken bouillon seasoning! Man-made sugars are everywhere as well, even in so-called healthy foods like soups.
“The first cancer diagnosis I made in my practice was a 16-year-old boy with leukemia,” Dean says. “I put him on vitamins and a diet, and sent him to the leukemia specialists who immediately took him off everything because they put him on folate-inhibiting chemotherapy, and they thought the B vitamin, folic acid, or high folate foods (such as green vegetables!) would neutralize the chemo. That notion continued for decades and prevented nutrition from being considered in cancer therapy.”
Dean adds, “I was never more shocked than when I did a rotation at the local hospital in Toronto to find a McDonald’s as the food provider.”
Cancer Treatment As A Profit Model
Chemotherapy and radiation treatments are abominably expensive. One chemo pill can cost $400. How much does a bowl of broccoli cost? Who stands to lose billions of dollars if it’s determined that a certain diet is just as effective—or more effective—than conventional cancer treatment? “Cancer is an industry and anything that isn’t part of the industry is ignored,” Dean says.
The money hurdle also comes into play with insurance coverage—or lack thereof. “Most cancer treatment facilities do not provide all patients access to oncology dietitians who could provide detailed consultation, because these services are often not covered by insurance,” says dietician Carolyn Lammersfeld, vice president of integrative medicine at Cancer Treatment Centers of America.
“Often, concerns with resources also carry over into the food that is provided and served in cancer treatment facilities, if they serve food,” she says. “Food often has to be provided at a cost of less than $2 per meal, leaving healthy choices like fresh fish and organic produce off the menu. Patients get the message that diet and nutrition are not important.”
Still, the fact remains that regardless of the profit motives of a vast and overburdened medical machine, real doctors are more often than not dedicated, well-intentioned healers with their patients’ best interests in mind. So why, then, is it so challenging to simply feed cancer patients an all-natural, plant-based diet—the very diet that’s been linked to lower risks of cancer as well as heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes?
The answer circles right back to lack of training, and an unwillingness to go out on a limb. “Most oncologists have very little training in nutrition,” Lammersfeld says. “They have an enormous amount of literature to read to keep up with rapid changes in cancer treatment, leaving little to no time to read about diet and nutrition. Therefore, what doctors don’t know, they don’t talk about.”
And yet, says Lammersfeld, “As many as 80 to 90 percent of people with cancer may have signs and symptoms of malnutrition. According to the National Cancer Institute, 20 to 40 percent of people with cancer may die from malnutrition or the consequences of malnutrition.”
A Model For The Future
Lammersfeld’s organization, Cancer Treatment Centers of America, has long recognized the importance of incorporating diet and nutrition therapy into patients’ cancer treatment.
“Cancer survivors may benefit from diet and lifestyle changes to reduce their risk of a cancer recurrence or another cancer or chronic disease after completing treatment,” she says. “Cancer and cancer treatments can cause anorexia [excessive weight loss minus purposeful calorie restriction], and many symptoms that can make eating difficult, and weight loss common. People with cancer need individualized recommendations to help them get the right quantity of nutrients to maintain their weight and immune function.”
Another issue, points out Lammersfeld, is that the right diet can help take the edge off chemo side effects, and improve recovery and function during treatment. It’s a travesty that food—as medicine—is blown off in most cancer treatment settings.
The CTCA is ahead of the game, in that every oncologist has a registered dietician on his or her treatment team. Diet is individualized for each patient, unlike the cookie cutter approach of most other cancer treatment centers. Lammersfeld explains, “The food served at our facilities is a priority. Patients have access to organic foods, fresh fish, whole grains, plenty of vegetables and fruits, and many other healthy options.”
As I acknowledged earlier, the question of exactly what kind of diet a cancer patient should have is an entirely separate topic of its own—and a complex one. In fact, at CTCA, “comfort foods” are indeed available for patients struggling to keep up a healthy body weight.
The first priority, however, is to recognize that nutrition should play a critical role in cancer treatment, and to get a nutrition-based approach well under way all across the board. This should be a must-have at every cancer treatment facility, and for every cancer patient.
Photo by bitca/Flickr license permission.