Feed the Body, Feed the Cancer

[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.

6 thoughts on “Feed the Body, Feed the Cancer”

  1. Newer cancer chemotherapy drugs affect certain molecular structures unique to cancer or disproportionately represented there. For example, Judah Folkman suffered years of criticism and even ridicule because he was convinced that something in cancer stimulated the growth of new blood vessels. Otherwise, how could cancer grow ? It would outgrow its own blood supply. He was ridiculed because he was a surgeon and everybody knows that surgeons are dumb.

    Eventually, he proved to everyone’s satisfaction that angiogenesis factors do in fact exist and are critical for cancer growth. It’s quite a story because his results were doubted as some sort of quackery because others had trouble duplicating his results for a while.

    Some of the other new drugs are hybrid molecules in which one part is an antibody to a receptor on the surface of a cancer cell. Some of these receptors are over-represented on cancer cells. These drugs are expensive to make and are the target of many in the “death panel” movement.

  2. “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.”

    In all seriousness, what would be a better option? The “typical American” diet of fast food that’s lower in nutritional value? In that case, if I was suffering from cancer, at least I could justify my McGriddle sandwiches as health food.

    (And Michael, don’t even get me going on the expense of new medical technologies versus health care rationing. Why is it that we’re supposed to “invest” multiple billions in “green” tech, because “the price will go down as it’s more widely adopted,” but the same reasoning doesn’t apply to new but currently expensive medical therapies?)

  3. Michael Kennedy
    “he proved to everyone’s satisfaction that angiogenesis factors do in fact exist and are critical for cancer growth. ”

    I remember reading that cancer cells require more of everything than normal cells. I wrote a suggestion to a researcher years ago that they consider using Thalidomide as it has definite effects on the growth of blood vessels.

    At least, that is what I remember..

    I just did a google search and noted that it is being used in some cancer therapies. good.

  4. Yes, Thalidomide is used to treat certain cancers. I am badly out of date in cancer chemotherapy but some of the details are fascinating. The same applies to some treatment for chronic inflammatory diseases, like rheumatoid arthritis. If I were starting again, I think I would go the molecular biology route. When I considered this as a student, I realized that our knowledge was so primitive that I would better to stick with physical chemistry. There was simply not enough knowledge to get things to the level of clinical relevance.

    The work that Craig Venter is doing is simply beyond imagination at the time I was a student. Arthur Clarke said “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

  5. Michael Kennedy,

    I think things like angiogenesis factors are just a variant of cancer cells disproportionally consuming resources. There are a lot of cells that require a good blood flow, like the intestines and you can’t dial things back to far without running a big systemic risk.

    I think people think of cancer treatments as being like antibiotics which attack molecular structures that bacteria possess but which eukaryotes like us don’t. You can seriously shut down bacteria cell growth within a patient without affecting the cell growth of patients own cells at all.

    You can’t do that at all with cancer. With cancer its always a destructive race and you just hope you kill the cancer before you kill yourself.

  6. A unique form of cancer was the first to be cured by chemotherapy. That is choriocarcinoma. It is unique because the cancer arises from fetal tissue. It is a malignant placenta. That genetic difference allows the chemotherapy to kill all the cancer cells without excessive harm to the host. It was the first cancer cured by chemo and the results were incredibly dramatic. Women with metastatic cancer everywhere were cured in three months.

    Choriocarcinoma also occurs in males but the cancer arises from germ cells and has the same genetic makeup as the host. Chemotherapy is not as successful.

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