I can’t stress enough how important the food you eat or don’t eat, affects your health and your cancer. Food can be medicine or poison. It is something you have complete control of, when cancer seems to otherwise be hijacking your life.
Eat lots of fresh vegetables, especially fermented ones. Not too much meat, only good quality grass fed organic. Limit or better yet, eliminate sugar. Consume good oils like fish, coconut, olive oil and hearty bone broths. Try fasting.
A lot of this stuff is considered complimentary or alternative medicine, which is gaining more traction in the medical field through integrative medicine. It is important to understand that there is a whole lot of unsupported, out right quackery when it comes to miracle cures for cancer. Be skeptical and be cautious, a lot folks are trying to make a buck from vulnerable and desperate people like us.
Believe me. You will get all sorts of advice from well-meaning people and a lot of it will be worthless, maybe even harmful.
The American Cancer Society has a good read on this topic, and the Mayo Clinic too.
The book Anti-Cancer: A New Way of Life had lots of awesome info in it, and I would recommend this highly to everyone. I read this AFTER I more or less made it through the worst of it, but it was ra-affirming and would have been helpful earlier!
When I was enduring my journey through the thick of cancer, I was more or less following some version of “paleo style” eating. I can say personally and from testimonials of several people I know, that folks feel better and have more energy when they clean things up, removing inflammatory foods from their diet. For a good starting point and continued education I would recommend the “Marks Daily Apple” blog, and his “Primal Blueprint” to get started.
To be honest these days (8 years post cancer as I write this) I’m not so strict, realizing that “diets” can often be unsustainable when they are restrictive and deprive us of the foods we really enjoy. If you can mostly abandon processed foods and sugars, that would be a really major step in the right direction. At least when you are in the thick of a serious health condition, cleaning up your diet to support your body is critical and as much as possible stick with it. Plus everyone is just different. My husband Mike could be sustained on meat 3 times a day, whereas I’ve never felt any urge for that much. Maybe a few times a week.
Ditch the sugary and processed foods. Something Michael Pollan said in one of his books has stuck with me.
Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.
By food, he means whole foods. Real foods. Not food-like products.
This should all be considered through your cultural food lens too. Paleo type diets for example really restrict things like rice and beans- but if that’s a mainstay for you, I don’t think you should ditch them. Foods can feed our souls too, and as long as that’s not Snickers bars or Fruit Loops, enjoy them and focus first on limiting the garbage foods that only harm you and make it harder for your body to heal. Mainly, that’s processed foods and sugars.
I was appalled so many times in the waiting room, watching cancer patients eat candy bars and other junk food. Part of me completely empathized; the discomfort, wonky taste-buds making things you used to love taste like chemicals, nausea and the other unsettling symptoms that sometimes limit what you can tolerate eating. But there is always a better option. Your body is trying to heal from serious trauma- help it! Feeding yourself crap is only making things worse.
I really can’t emphasize enough the importance of eating this way throughout the rest of your life as a way to stay optimally healthy. Not just when cancer or some other awful health thing shows up. This is a lifestyle.
Here’s some stuff on “Eat to Defeat Cancer”, and also a TED Talk on the subject. This isn’t necessarily paleo but has similar undertones of eating things that will help you stay healthy and fight disease.
Basically, eat LOTS of vegetables all the time, especially dark leafy greens. Find ways to include ginger, turmeric, garlic and green tea into your diet however you can. There is good evidence of their cancer fighting abilities, but we just never seem to consume them enough. I make a really great “chai” type tea by simmering fresh turmeric and ginger, cinnamon, allspice, vanilla into a concentrate. Then I heat it up later and dilute with water. You can add milk/cream, honey to taste. Yummy!
Here is a document with turmeric recipes, from a class I taught with Susan many years ago. I personally love curries, so make them a lot using garlic, ginger and turmeric. If you can, use fresh turmeric, ginger and garlic. Living in Florida, I’m lucky that I can grow some of these, so I know exactly how fresh and clean they are! Eating them fresh, not cooked is probably better. We know for garlic that when cooked, the powerful phytochemicals are lost.
Investing in a good blender like a Vitamix will allow you to pulverize vegetables into smoothies. When I wasn’t feeling well, or even when I was but wanted something nutritious quickly, I would blend up some smoothies. The Vitamix will let you liquefy whole beets, carrots etc. The trick is reducing the sweetness, with about a 4:1 ratio of veg: fruit. This can take some time getting used to, so gradually ease the sweetness down and consider using super healthy fruits like blueberries or blackberries. Be aware, blended fruits and vegetables do flood the liver quickly with sugar so I wouldn’t do these all the time, and take care to keep them as unsweet as possible. But if a little extra sweet helps some nutritious food good down when you’re feeling like shit- do it!
Here is a document that a good friend and trusted herbalist and wellness expert Susan put together for me. It outlines some foods and supplements to try.
Now this is where vegetables get really powerful!! The process of fermenting vegetables not only preserves them, but increases their nutritional value, makes them more digestible and full of anti-oxidants. They are loaded with probiotics too. There is a lot to say on these tasty bacteria we’re eating and their benefits. Read here from Science-Based Medicine a comprehensive review about various fermented foods and their benefits.
I used to teach a fermentation workshop twice a year with three other women I call the “Queens of Fermentation”. Here is our class hand out with recipes!
Sandor Katz is the fermentation guru and any of his books will get you started on fermentation. I own two of them, my favorite is Wild Fermentation.
Fasting has been an ancient ritual for many cultures, attributed to longevity, and something our ancestors endured out of necessity and for cultural traditions. Today, the thought of withholding food seems crazy to people. No one deliberately goes hungry, we hate the sensation of hunger and often exclaim, “I’m STARVING!” When it’s only been a few hours since we last ate! Our bodies never get a break from metabolizing food, and many of us are forcing our bodies to process food it doesn’t want. So we work harder to process, store and eliminate. Our bodies deserve rest and a little TLC!
I have come to think about fasting as a reset button. Like whenever your computer or phone goes wonky, the first thing you do is restart it. Same with the body and the gut.
As I was researching complementary care for cancer treatments, I stumbled across some interesting papers on fasting during chemo by Valter Longo of the University of Southern California. The premise is that cancer cells consume lots of glucose (sugar) during their metabolism and growth. When they are cut off from sugars (i.e. during a prolonged fasted state), they switch metabolic pathways which ends up producing free radicals that kill the cells. The other significant factor is that normal cells go into protective mode during a fasted state (about 48 hours or more), repairing themselves, triggering cell death for damaged cells, and somehow protecting themselves from the effects of toxins (i.e. chemo).
The 1-2 punch for cancer is this: in a fasted state prior to, and during chemo infusions, cancer cells are already stressed from lack of glucose, are more prone to the chemo, AND your normal cells are spared some of the abuse. This study reviews human clinical trials, where most patients report far less side-effects from chemo when they were in a fasted condition.
Remember this is not just for cancer fighting, but for its prevention and overall health. It’s a powerful tool to continue to use throughout your life.
I found it to be easy to do and think it helped with the nausea and maybe even the efficacy of the drugs. The concept is that your body’s normal cells are evolved to endure caloric restriction. We didn’t evolve eating three full meals every day, so they go into repair and maintenance mode when starved. In this condition they are able to resist some of the penetration of the drug, so they are somewhat more safe, while the cancer is not. Of course the chemo will still affect you, but supposedly less.
Some cancer treatments may require food, and a friend going through treatment informed me that turmeric actually messes with radiology scans! So just know your situation and decide what’s best for you. I had a friend who was so sick and weak from her treatments, she couldn’t possibly consider fasting because she needed some calories to keep her going. Although I desperately wished she could have tried it, she knew it wasn’t for her.
Depending on how long you are in a fasted state, your immune system gets an entire re-boot. This seems to be around the 72 hour mark. Our immune systems are responsible for detecting invaders like viruses and infection and helping get rid of them. Cancer often sneaks in undetected, but giving yourself an immune re-boot gives the new and fresh system a second chance to recognize the invader and attack.
A fairly quick and easy fast that lasts 18 hours, simply involves not eating after dinner, and skipping breakfast. For me this is an easy one because I’m not typically hungry in the morning anyway. By the time lunch rolls around I’ve done a mini fast! Or you can up your game and go a full 24-48 hours to really start stressing out the cancer and cleaning up the other crap in your body. I don’t know if anyone knows how much, or how often you need to do it, so just do it. Don’t wait for a specific formula.
I can promise you that if you eat more paleo, the higher fat and protein content are very satiating, making fasting less difficult. I remember trying to fast when I was younger for a fundraiser. Grains and sugars were a regular part of my diet, and I felt so hungry, so quickly that it was exceedingly difficult to go a full 24 hours. I really did feel like I was starving.
This is as much a mental exercise as it is physical. Remember, you are NOT starving, you are performing a healing ritual that will be over soon. Hunger comes in waves and will dissipate. Drink lots of water or herbal teas and try not to dwell on it. Observe the slight discomfort and let it pass.
If you are going for a longer one, consider what your schedule is. Try not to do anything too physical or mind-boggling towards the end when you’ll be feeling…loopy and euphoric! Skies are brighter and music more sweet when you’re in this stage. Try to enjoy it!
How I Fasted During Chemo
I was convinced enough to try it and will admit that I didn’t tell my doctor. I know you are supposed to divulge everything, but I didn’t think this conflicted with my treatment and I didn’t want to be talked out of it. I have the utmost respect for oncologists and their knowledge, however I also realized early on that the holistic view of the disease and the person were not considered. Cancer treatment is very tunnel vision in Western medicine, so I was certain he would tell me to not do it. Given what I’d read about fasting, it wasn’t anything to be worried about in my condition of being young, and very healthy other than the pesky cancer thing.
What always irritated the hek out of me, was hearing from doctors, nurses and everybody to just eat what I felt like eating to make sure I had calories! I’d see patients in the waiting room eating and drinking junk food and I wanted to scream! OK so if I really just felt like eating jello and candy, that was preferable? Trust me, I totally get how treatment makes you repulsed by certain foods, your taste buds change, and your nausea dictates what you can tolerate. But if junk is what you can tolerate, then I’d argue to just not eat until you feel a bit better.
For each and every chemo treatment, I fasted prior to, and during the infusions for a total fast time of about 2 days. No food 24 hours before chemo, no food on chemo day, then the next morning I’d ease back in. Eat small amounts of food to ease back in, like miso soup with bone broth. Since I did this every time, I have no control for comparison, but I will say that I tolerated chemo fairly well, all things considered.
Yes, I was nauseous and it required meds to stop me from hurling all over. Yes I lost my hair and felt more exhausted as treatments wore on. But I was still incredibly active. I would drag myself off the couch and get to the farm, sitting out in the hot sun weeding and picking flowers! I still went out and visited friends and family and did social things. I flew to Canada to see family and spent time camping, boating, and sightseeing with my sister Annette and Mike in Quebec after my last treatment was completed. So it’s possible the fasting helped alleviate the side effects, if my normal cells were offered some protection from the toxic drugs. I don’t know for sure, I can only speculate.
My thoughts on this now, post cancer (4.5 years writing this), is that fasting is a powerful physical and spiritual practice. The physical effects on the body are incredibly beneficial for overall health. The very act of enduring it is challenging, but when it’s done with intention and mindfulness, it’s exhilarating.
I continue fasting to this day. Some days I just withhold eating for several hours by skipping a couple of meals. This comes easy some days if I’m not all that hungry, or am kept busy at something and I don’t think about eating. These mini fasts occur throughout the year and average perhaps once a month. They’re simple. If I skip breakfast and lunch, I’ve gone 24 hours. Once or twice a year I do the full re-boot of a 48-72 hour fast. A recent paper suggested the 72 hour time frame was when the immune system was fully refreshed and a deep “cleanse” occurs. I have a good friend with a complicated immune disease, so we embark together because not eating for that long is hard, and we need support!
It’s easy to overlook the fact that so much of our lives centers around food. Particularly because I am so obsessed with food! I grow some of my own, and have farmers, gardeners and foodie friends! My career is local food! So, when I go for the big fast I look at the calendar and pick a good time; conscious of what I’m doing those days in terms of energy needs and focus levels, and what temptations may arise! But it’s worth the endurance, because it feels great and you know what is happening at the cellular level to re-boot the body.
Here is a post about fasting, that includes a great mini documentary explaining it well.
Scientific Articles about Fasting
These may be a little dense reading, but worth the look to understand more about the research behind all this stuff.
Fasting, Cancer and Radiation Therapy
Fasting, Cancer and Chemotheraphy I
Fasting, Cancer and Chemotherapy II
Fasting and Clinical Applications
Not exactly about fasting, but an interesting look at metabolic defects of cancer cells, particularly sarcomas that can be exploited and cause tumors to die, without typical cancer drugs.
Sugar and Cancer
There is increasing evidence that sugar (fructose/glucose) fuels cancer cell growth. Cancer cells hyperactively gobble up sugars at a far higher rate than normal cells, allowing their proliferation. While our normal cells also need sugar to function, they typically get way too much in the standard American diet, causing the metabolized sugar to turn to fat, which over time can lead to any number of obesity-related health concerns.
“Sugar should be thought of, like cigarettes and alcohol, as something that’s killing us.”
~Robert Lustig, American Pediatric Endocrinologist
One of the best things you can do is to ditch sugar NOW!! It is difficult to break this drug addiction, but once you get over the initial withdrawal, its gets easier. I have always had a major sweet tooth and found this part really hard. But the scare of cancer was enough.
My experience is that people say, “oh I really don’t eat that much sugar”. But if you start writing down what you eat on a daily basis, and consider that many high carb and starchy foods like bread, pasta and potatoes are converted to sugar quickly in the body, you will discover that you are consuming a lot of sugar.
Even if it didn’t fuel cancer growth, consider the ill effects it can have on overall health in general.
Is Sugar Toxic? A 2011 NY Times Article
Sugar Influences Cancer Growth, Ken Peeters et al. Nature Communications
While I believe eating a whole foods diet supplies most of what you need, there are some wonderful herbal supplements that have clinical evidence for helping in the fight against cancer. Two trusted friends, one a medical doctor and the other an herbalist have compiled this list for me.
I’ve included a scanned copy of a document my mother in law gave me. And if you’re skeptical, read this journal abstract from the National Institutes of Health. I was told however that you must be sure you have the correct brand as they are not all pure. The brand I have is supposed to be the best and you can get it the cheapest online from Vitacost. Be sure it’s this one from the Allergy Research Group.
Astragalus root may be beneficial fighting cancer, and also may reduce nausea and vomiting associated with chemotherapy.
I recently stumbled across this article about dandelion tea and cancer. Some researchers in Canada are currently studying its effects due to intriguing evidence of its cancer fighting properties. You can buy tea bags of it from natural stores, or get it in bulk and brew your own tea. It’s the roasted roots of the plant and I quite like the taste of it. Make 2 or more cups a day.
An important component of our daily fight to reduce inflammation. Omega 3 fatty acids (EPA and DHA) in fish oil help to restore the balance between pro-inflammatory and anti-inflammatory chemicals in the body without adversely affecting immune function.
Green tea may inhibit the development of new blood vessels that feed tumors. You need to drink a lot to realize the benefits, about 5-10 cups per day. But I’d hypothesize that daily consumption of a cup or two as a long term preventative would be effective.
This is used for liver support during chemotherapy which can wreak havoc on many of the body’s tissues, including the liver. It may also have direct effects against liver cancers.
Mushrooms can protect agains the side effects of radiation therapy and improve survival with cancer. There are many kinds and you can get in liquid or tablet form if whole mushroom is not available. Shiiitake, maitake and reishi are good. My friend Michael gave me some foraged reishi and turkey tail and I admit they taste awful! I had trouble using them, but sucked back mushroom tea like a bitter medicine, gritting my teeth. There may be better ways to take them!
If you can, make sure you have it with a few shakes of freshly ground black pepper and some oil. The pepper-turmeric combo is far more powerful and makes the cucurmin more readily absorbed by your body. They go well together too!
Most people are low in vitamin D. Here in the sunshine state we’re a little less at risk. It might be worth having your blood levels checked, and certainly consider taking a supplement or seeking out food sources that are high.