Treating cancer via diet

I was listening to Bill Maher’s Club Random podcast (better than I expected, btw) with Woody Harrelson, who was spouting some claptrap about treating cancer through dietary practices, and to my surprise a close friend whom I told about this defended Harrelson’s crackpot ideas, and told me to look at the millions of websites promoting diet as a way to treat cancer. I pointed out how susceptible and desparate cancer patients are, and how diet can’t hurt but really can’t affect malignant cells that much, and how easy it is for scammers to invent diets that they have little to lose by investing in. How much truth, beyond “eating healthy foods is generally beneficial for humans”, is there to dietary treatments for cancer?

Eating healthy food boosts your immune system, and there may be some benefits to cancer patients, but I don’t think just eating well alone will cure most cancers. If specific foods have been proven to cure cancer, I’m not aware of them.

All I can say is that my son has been doing cancer research for the last nine years. As a grad student and now a post-doc, he’s had to keep up with tons of journals. Not once in the last nine years has he ever said anything about any food preventing cancer, much less combating cancer once it’s been detected.

I know someone who swears he cured his colon cancer with red clover tea, peppermint tea and something else tea-ish, I can’t remember it has been like 40 years. He swears the tumor died and he pooped it out. Since he was still alive and kicking some 15 years after the tea thing, I let him believe what he wanted - I personally doubt it was cancer, I think it was obviously something misdiagnosed by the much more crude cancer diagnostics of the time.

The person in the infusion chair next to mine got an epic eyeroll and sigh from the infusion area nurse when they announced how proud they were to be taking measures to clean the toxins from their system after infusion …

I know for a fact that many self-limited diseases will be cured via diet.

Okay, which ones and which diet?

online dictionary today says that a “self-limited disease” is one that. “resolves spontaneously with or without specific treatment

As for “which diet”, any that provide daily caloric needs.

Oh, OK. You mean that diseases that cure themselves with no external treatment at all will be aided by the patient refusing to starve himself to death.

I am willing to concede as much, or more, but that isn’t the point that my friend or Woody Harrelson is content to accept as the limit of “diet will cure some cancers.”

Even smart people can succumb to “Magical Thinking."

I’m not a medical doctor, but I am a psychologist who specialized in working with cancer patients. My informed opinion is that diet won’t cure cancer but may be helpful as an adjunctive intervention so far as decreasing intake of carcinogens, supporting immune function, supporting general wellness, reducing/preventing fat weight gain, and perhaps introducing elements such as some mushrooms that may help support apoptosis. A reasonable book that I’ve seen many oncologists recommend is The Cancer-Fighting Kitchen by Rebecca Katz. Explanatory front matter, large photos, workable recipes.

ETA: The best approach I know to “toxins” from chemo is water, which many find very helpful (and many drink astonishingly little fluid/water prior to cancer, so it’s good to ask about).

Thanks. This supports my position, which is basically that eating a healthy diet helps people deal with disease generally, and certainly doesn’t do any harm, but the main benefit is promoting a sound psychological outlook that keeps patients focussed on things that are actually helpful, like keeping their chemotherapy appointments, warding off additional medical problems that have dietary bases (i.e. obesity, muscular atrophy, etc.). It’s only a matter of degree with which I disagree with nutjobs like Woody Harrelson (and apparently my friend) who thinks that dietary changes play a major part in combatting cancer when it has already manifested itself. I think this is just wishful thinking, an attempt to empower patients with the little that is under their control, i.e., what they eat.

People facing a cancer diagnosis feel desperate and helpless, and the promise of a diet-based natural cure gives them an illusion of control. Frequently, patients do feel better for a little while after starting the diet based program, although the effect is largely psychosomatic.

But like many other empowerment/ toxic positivity scams, it soon turns into an insidious form of victim-blaming. The program works, the problem is YOU. It’s your fault your cancer isn’t going away, you must be doing something wrong. If you start to question the program, your negative mindset is blocking the effect.

Some of these natural cure programs are very stringent and 100% compliance is very difficult, if not impossible, especially once the cancer starts to take its physical toll. Some of them impose schedules that makes it impossible to get a full night’s sleep.

It’s very sad, some of these people go to their graves believing that if they hadn’t had that bite of steak or piece of chocolate, if they hadn’t missed their 3AM coffee enema that one time, they would be alive and healthy. And it can be even worse when family members believe in the cure and blame their loved ones for not trying hard enough.

Yes. This is why I’m as adamant in arguing the point with my friend defending Woody Harrelson’s nutjob opinions. I feel compassion for the people being taken in by the scam. Not all the diet practitioners are scammers, of course, but enough are simply seeing cancer patients as desperately seeking some glimmers of hope that they can take advantage of.

But the flip side to this is that dietary program really isn’t doing anything and it can keep the patients from enjoying what is left of their life to the fullest, I’m one of the people that believes terminally ill patients should indulge their food cravings when they get them and enjoy their favorite foods.

Also, some cancers are wasting diseases and malabsorption of nutrients and calories can cause extreme weight loss, and “healthy” dietary programs tend not to be calorie dense and can accelerate weight loss and wasting.

There’s some evidence that certain diets (or including/excluding particular items) may influence one’s chances of getting cancer.

Apart from the benefits of a nutritious diet with adequate caloric intake, there’s next to nothing to suggest that particular diets, “superfoods” and supplements are effective in treating or curing cancer. Some, like the Gerson dietary protocol, attempts to avoid sugars, prolonged fasting etc. can be harmful or at least make patients miserable.* Others, like “alkaline” diets are simply bullshit.

*There was a clinical trial awhile back in pancreatic cancer patients, one group of which received standard-of-care chemotherapy, with the rest getting the Gerson dietary protocol with its attendant coffee enemas and daily handfuls of supplement pills. The results showed that the Gerson patients had markedly shorter life spans and poorer quality of life.

It’s a long way from “cancer” to “terminal,” and many people eat a lot of crap, reduction of which may be physically helpful. I agree that anything rigid or complicated isn’t of sufficient benefit in most cases.

Cancer cells use 40% more carbohydrates than healthy cells. In other words, they love sugar. I don’t know what Harrelson said, but keeping your carbs very low is definitely a plus when it comes to cancer.

My late mother never met any woo she didn’t like. After she was diagnosed with breast cancer and got a mastectomy, she promptly turned to dozens of crazy diets (e.g. eating tons of carrots, or tons of almonds, foods recommended based on one’s blood type, or only certain colors of food), crystal healing, or thinking positive thoughts all day, rather than pursuing chemotherapy or radiation treatment. She was a vain person about her appearances and the thought of her hair falling out was too much to bear. So she never really had a chance. It was only when she was on her death bed that she would countenance taking any of those “evil unhealthy drugs” (like morphine). However, in her defense, it should be noted she had a full head of hair at the time of her death.

You can’t starve cancer cells by limiting sugar in the diet. The body regulates glucose levels to provide a steady source; if you try to radically limit carbohydrate intake, other metabolic pathways will be utilized to maintain blood glucose.

“Here’s where the myth that sugar fuels cancer was born: if cancer cells need lots of glucose, then cutting sugar out of our diet must help stop cancer growing, and could even stop it developing in the first place. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. All our healthy cells need glucose too, and there’s no way of telling our bodies to let healthy cells have the glucose they need, but not give it to cancer cells.”

There’s no evidence that following a “sugar-free” diet lowers the risk of getting cancer, or boosts the chances of surviving if you are diagnosed.

“And following severely restricted diets with very low amounts of carbohydrate could damage health in the long term by eliminating foods that are good sources of fibre and vitamins.”

“This is particularly important for cancer patients, because some treatments can result in weight loss and put the body under a lot of stress. So poor nutrition from restrictive diets could also hamper recovery, or even be life-threatening.”

“Obesity can increase the risk of getting cancer.” True.

“Following a highly restrictive low-sugar diet is effective in treating cancer.” False.

Wait, seriously, he’s using the argument “lots of websites say it, so it must be true”? Because, I mean, lots of websites also tell me that I absolutely must watch this bad cheerleading routine, because what happens to the cheerleader’s panties will shock me.