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The Cancer and Food Connection

By Joseph E. Scherger MD, MPH

Siddhartha Mukherjee, MD, an oncology fellow at the time, wrote a detailed biography of cancer in his 2010 book Emperor of All Maladies. In it he reports that early in human history, cancer was a very rare disease. As we all know, cancer has become increasingly common, especially since the industrial revolution. This increase cannot be blamed on genetics; this increase has to do with the environment, including what we eat.

Empiric and epidemiologic research has shown that foods can cause cancer, prevent it and even reverse the disease. Here is what we know: 1) Meat and other animal products are associated with cancer, especially colon cancer; 2) A whole food plant-based diet can prevent cancer and help with cancer reversal.

With this knowledge, it is unfortunate that the National Cancer Institute (NCI), part of the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH), has not conducted large clinical trials of nutrition and cancer. It is also unfortunate that cancer treatment centers usually do not include nutrition education based on our current scientific evidence.

Chris Wark was an active and healthy 26 year-old male when he developed invasive colon cancer. He admits his diet was not healthy. After his initial surgery, his instincts told him not to pursue the recommended chemotherapy and radiation therapy even though his body still had cancer. He dived into what was known about nutrition and lifestyle reversing cancer and went all in. His diet became plant-based and organic when possible. He became an active juicer of healthy vegetables and fruit to release more of the nutrients. He exercised, prayed a lot and managed stress. His cancer disappeared and has not come back over the 15 years prior to his book release Chris Beat Cancer in 2018.

Chris Wark is not alone. There have been numerous accounts of nutritional and lifestyle healing of cancer. T. Colin Campbell, the celebrated emeritus cancer epidemiologist from Cornell, conducted The China Study (Updated, BenBella Books, 2016) showing the regions of Asia with the highest and lowest cancer rates. The whole food plant-based diet is associated with the lowest rates where animal products are the highest (except for wild caught seafood). High dairy intake is associated with higher rates of breast and prostate cancer. In his follow-up book, Whole: Rethinking the Science of Nutrition (BenBella Books, 2013), Campbell discusses his wife’s metastatic melanoma and how that was reversed on a whole food plant-based diet.

We know that nutrition with other healthy lifestyle factors can reverse cancer; however, anyone who wants to trust healthy nutrition and lifestyle over chemotherapy and radiation is taking a risk: all cancer therapy is risky. There is much more we need to learn. What plants are the most important? What about seafood? A reanalysis of the The China Study by Denise Minger shows that wild caught seafood is also associated with low cancer risk.1 Since only about 3 percent of Americans are choosing to be pure vegetarians, we need to know what animal products are safe with respect to cancer.

Not getting cancer, and reversing it, requires an immune system and other defense systems such as an anti-angiogenesis (cutting off the blood supply or “starving” the cancer). In his book, Eat to Beat Disease, William Li, MD, offers a large number of foods that have strong evidence of helping five of our defense systems against diseases including cancer (I reviewed this book in the May/June 2019 edition of Desert Health).

Cancer treatment is moving away from the toxic and damaging drugs of chemotherapy to health-enhancing methods such as immunotherapy; however, the new treatments are incredibly expensive. Eating a healthy diet is what we should all be doing anyway, along with the other lifestyle factors of daily exercise, stress management, restorative sleep, social connections and meaning and purpose in life. Wouldn’t it be nice to return to an earlier time when cancer was a rare disease?

Dr. Scherger is an Eisenhower Health Primary Care 365 physician and core faculty member of the Family Medicine Residency Program.

References: 1) https://deniseminger.com/the-china-study/

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