• Catherine Steele

Diet and Cancer - My Approach

The role that nutrition plays in the prevention and control of cancer is a constant source of debate. Most oncologists will recommend that you follow a balanced diet and maintain a healthy weight, but are dismissive of claims that following a particular diet can affect your prognosis.

Despite this rejection from healthcare professionals, the internet is awash with claims that certain food either promote or prevent the growth of cancer. When you’re faced with a progressive disease, the idea that you can affect your outcome by changing your diet is compelling to say the least, and one which I initially jumped on with hope and optimism.

Since my secondary diagnosis I have tried to cut down on sugar and reduce my intake of dairy produce, but it’s been a bit half-hearted because it’s hard and I was not convinced that it was making any difference (oh, and I LOVE cheese).

I’ve tried to research the effects of diet on cancer, but I’ve found that the information is either too sensational and lacking in evidence or is scientifically complicated beyond my understanding. I’ve therefore felt a bit lost and confused.

I’ve even sought the help of a nutritionist who specialises in working with cancer patients in an attempt to get some advice on the diet and supplements. The diet she recommended for me was sugar free, dairy free, rich with vegetables and low in meat and fruit (due to the high sugar content in many fruits). She also recommended that I take a cocktail of supplements each day. Initially I enthusiastically stuck to the diet and took all the supplements on my long (and expensive) list. It was hard for me to give up some of the things I loved - especially cheese and fruit, but I did it, believing that I was doing everything I could to keep my cancer from progressing.

As time passed I began to question some of my nutritionist’s recommendations and did some of my own research. I actually found very little compelling evidence for most of the recommendations she had made. I know this is a very emotive subject, and maybe I just chose the wrong nutritionist, but I began to feel quite uncomfortable with the diet and supplement plan she had put together for me. I even read some research that suggested in some cases, one of the supplements I had been recommended may drive the growth of cancer.

There is such conflicting evidence for most diet choices and supplements - even those that seem harmless. For example, multi-vitamins seem like an obvious choice to incorporate into your daily routine. We all have days where we choose a pizza over a salad and don’t get enough nutrition from our food. Multivitamins therefore seem like a harmless insurance policy to ensure that we are consuming all the vitamins and minerals we need, even on a bad day.

It therefore might surprise you to learn that there is some evidence that the seemingly harmless multivitamin has been shown to actually increase your risk of developing certain cancers. In one study, folic acid and B12, which are found in most multivitamins, were associated with a 21% increase in the development of lung cancer and a 38% increased risk of dying from the disease. It's quite scary, and very confusing.

I am a believer in the phrase ‘You are what you eat’ and am convinced that the compounds found in certain foods and those packaged into supplements have a role to play in controlling the growth of cancer. Unfortunately, I don’t think there is enough understanding within the scientific community to determine which compounds we should consume more of and which we should avoid. The majority of experimentation in this field has been done in-vitro, i.e. in a petri dish and has produced conflicting results.

I believe that we are a long way off accurately demonstrating a direct causal effect in humans between what we consume and how our cancer behaves. This is partly due to the difficulties in designing robust scientific experiments that can reliably demonstrate cause and effect in humans of a certain compound to the exclusion of any other lifestyle or dietary factors. Furthermore, not all cancers are equal. It is highly likely that a compound may accelerate some types of cancer and inhibit others, so these experiments need to be highly specific in order to produce compelling results.

That said, I do believe that a healthy Mediterranean diet can help create an environment within your body that favours the growth of healthy cells and diminishes the ability of cancer cells to replicate.

The approach I have settled on is based on the principle of ‘Do no harm’. I (try to) follow a diet that is rich in fruit and vegetables, low in sugar, and low in animal products. Even if it doesn’t directly reduce the growth of my cancer, this type of diet is generally accepted as helping to build resilience and strengthen the immune system - both vital for a cancer patient. I also take one or two supplements (when I remember) that have demonstrated some impressive in-vitro results and for which I can find no contradictory studies.

This approach works for me. I get to eat what I enjoy (including Cheese) and am freed from the constant anxiety of trying to untangle the contradictory advice and complex science that surrounds the subject of diet.

The diet you follow and the supplements you take are a personal choice, but given the lack of scientific understanding in this area, I urge you to follow the principle of ‘do no harm’ and also to enjoy what you’re eating!

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