[Note: If you or a loved one is currently fighting cancer, you might want to skip this post.]
Whenever I hear someone with cancer talking about fighting the disease by adopting some supposedly super-healthy diet or taking some supplement, I always wince inside because I strongly suspect they are actively harming themselves.
Our intuitive model of fighting disease comes primarily from our experience fighting infectious diseases and the degenerative diseases of aging. In the intuitive model, anything that is good for the body’s cells, tissues and systems, e.g., eating “right”, taking anti-oxidants etc, helps the body to build immune cells and to repair damage caused by infection or life’s wear and tear.
However, cancer isn’t like any other disease.
Cancer cells are the body’s own cells growing uncontrollably. Chemotherapy and radiation have such horrific side effects precisely because the treatments must poison all the cells of the body in order to poison the cancer cells. Even today, very few effective cancer drugs target cancer cells with any great specificity.
The amount of damage a toxin or radiation does to a cell is directly proportional to the cell’s rate of metabolic activity. Slow-growing cells like neurons shrug off doses of toxins and radiation that will obliterate fast-growing cells like those in the hair follicles and digestive tract. That is why cancer patients lose their hair, experience digestive troubles and lose blood cells. All those tissues depend on fast-growing cells and they are poisoned disproportionately by toxins and radiation. Fortunately, the cancer cells are disproportionately poisoned to an even greater degree. That fact makes it possible to poison all the cancer cells before poisoning too many non-cancerous cells, which makes it possible to cure a case of cancer.
Unfortunately, the converse to poisoning is also true. Anything that strengthens the body’s cells strengthens cancer cells disproportionately. Cancer cells require the same resources as healthy body cells but at significantly increased rates. Cancer cells gobble up oxygen, glucose, amino acids, vitamins, minerals, anti-oxidants etc. If something is good for you in general, cancer cells thrive on it.
People who adopt what would normally be a healthy diet and lifestyle when fighting cancer can well be shooting themselves in the foot. I thought of this in particular when reading about this new treatment based on blocking anti-oxidants in cancer cells. A lot of people with cancer gobble down anti-oxidants on the premise that they “are good for the body” but unfortunately, they are giving the cancer cells a disproportionate boost. Cancer cells are disproportionately threatened by free radicals (that is why they are disproportionately affected by radiation), so providing them with anti-oxidants likewise gives them a disproportionate boost relative to non-cancerous cells and defeats the purpose of radiation therapy in the first place.
If we were to use the nutritional version of chemotherapy, we would adopt a diet that starved the body, especially the fast-growing cells. Fast-growing cells like glucose, so adopting a radical zero-carb, minimal-protein (excess protein converts to sugar) diet might slow some cancers. Cancer cells gobble up critical amino acids, vitamins and minerals, so a diet low in all three, even to the point of causing border-line malnutrition, might slow some cancers as well.
Of course all this would be risky because, just like chemotherapy and radiation, such a diet would impede the body’s ability to fight off infection or repair damage caused by the cancer. Adding malnutrition in addition to the damage already caused by the other two treatments might do more harm than good. It does no good to cure a cancer only to have the patient die of an infection they were to weak to fight off because of the side effects of the anti-cancer treatments.
People are drawn to believing that diet and supplements can have a profound effect on all illnesses, because such a belief gives individuals a sense of control over events that create a horrific sense of helplessness. With most diseases, such an approach is either biologically harmless or actively biologically beneficial and the psychological boost is always beneficial. It is no surprise, then, that people faced with the most frightening of the few fatal diseases remaining in the modern world intuitively turn to optimal nutrition and supplements to gain some sense of control and hope.
But as I said above, cancer isn’t like other diseases. Cancer patients should think carefully before joining the general rush to adopt diets and supplements intended to maximize the general health of the body.