Cancer is the second leading cause of death globally, accounting for an estimated 9.6 million deaths, or one in six deaths, in 2018’ (World Health Organisation – September 2020). Unfortunately the current situation is that there are approximately 1,000 new cancer cases every day in the UK (Cancer Research UK – September 2020) and 465,000 every day globally in 2018 (World Health Organisation – September 2020). ‘1 in 2 people in the UK born after 1960 will be diagnosed with some form of cancer during their lifetime’ (Cancer Research UK – September 2020). Is this acceptable? I would suggest not, especially as the current mainstream belief is that up to 40% of cancers could be prevented (Cancer Research UK – September 2020). ‘Obesity, chronic low-grade inflammation, and high blood glucose, insulin and insulin-like growth factor 1 levels have been associated with a higher risk not only of developing but also of dying from various cancers’ (Obesity and Diabetes: The Increased Risk of Cancer and Cancer-Related Mortality – Physiological Reviews 2015)
Whilst there have undoubtedly been considerable advances in recent years in the ‘standard’ treatment options available and ‘survival rates’ (defined as living for more than 10 years) have doubled in the past 40 years in the UK (Cancer Research UK – September 2020), this disease still continues to inflict an ever increasing and unacceptable economic, social and emotional burden on humanity. This is in spite of unimaginable amounts being spent on research and treatments since the ‘war on cancer’ was declared in 1971. ‘Survival rates’ are not uniform across cancer types, age and sex, ranging from 1% with pancreatic cancer to 98% with testicular cancer (Cancer Research UK – September 2020).
Whilst increasing survival rates are clearly a good thing, is simply ‘surviving’ as opposed to ‘thriving’ good enough? Should we take comfort from the fact that whilst 50% of us are expected to develop cancer at some point in our lives, that we should simply rely on standard modern medical treatments to come to our rescue at the point of crisis, with all their potential negative consequences for the rest of our lives, as opposed to thinking about other options, to not only help reduce the risk of developing cancer in the first place, but also improving outcomes?
Conventional cancer treatments are typically brutal leaving ‘a gruelling physical and mental legacy for many years afterwards….and many of these people are not living well…..living with multiple long term conditions…..including chronic fatigue, sexual difficulties, mental health problems, chronic pain, urinary and gastrointestinal problems and persistent tissue swelling’ (‘Throwing light on the consequences of cancer and its treatments’ – Macmillan Cancer Support, 2013). What are the actual long term social and economic costs associated with just using standard modern medical cancer treatments? What if we could reduce these risks and long term costs by working in a more integrated manner using appropriately constructed and implemented complementary interventions, improving the effectiveness of conventional treatments and reducing their potential long term negative consequences? What if we made this this type of approach available to everyone under NHS care, rather than it being a consideration for those of us that are fortunate enough to be able to consider such options. I would make an educated guess that the return on investment on working this way would be enormous, from both an economic and social perspective.
The other key area to look at in depth is the quality of the dietary advice that is being given on a population wide basis to help reduce the ever increasing number of people that are developing cancer. There is very strong evidence to support the notion that as we have moved further and further away from our ancestral diets, reducing fat intake and dramatically increasing carbohydrate consumption, that cancer frequency has increased (Nutrition and Physical Degeneration: A Comparison of Primitive and Modern Diets and Their Effects. Oxford, Benediction Classics, 2010). Is it possible that the current dietary guidelines and trajectory are completely incongruent with maximising human heath and well-being? Unfortunately we do not have the space to discuss that thought here!
As a functionally trained practitioner, working with a number of cancer clients at any one point in time, my experience and understanding is that cancer is a complex multifactorial chronic disease. The evidence would strongly suggest that complementary approaches when combined with modern medical treatments can significantly improve patient outcomes. Here are a few examples:
The evidence supporting the use of a ketogenic dietary approach (the very strict control of carbohydrate intake, with moderate protein consumption and the majority of calories coming from high quality fats) improving the effectiveness of radiotherapy is convincing (Fasting, Fats, and Physics: Combining Ketogenic and Radiation Therapy against Cancer – Complementary Medicine Research 2018). A ketogenic state would appear to protect healthy cells, but not cancer cells, from high dose chemotherapy (Starvation-dependent differential stress resistance protects normal but not cancer cells against high-dose chemotherapy – PNAS 2008). The effectiveness of a ketogenic approach in combination with hyperbaric oxygen, hyperthermia (increasing temperature in a targeted manner) and chemotherapy in the most aggressive form of breast cancer has been observed (Efficacy of Metabolically Supported Chemotherapy Combined with Ketogenic Diet, Hyperthermia, and Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy for Stage IV Triple-Negative Breast Cancer – Cureus 2017). There is very strong evidence to support the notion that the combination of hyperthermia in combination with radiotherapy translates into a 25% improvement in ‘complete resolution’ of head and neck cancers (Hyperthermia and radiotherapy in the management of head and neck cancers: A systematic review and meta-analysis – International Journal of Hyperthermia 2015). High dose medicinal mushroom therapy (Mycotherapy) can be a very powerful complementary approach – ‘there are more than 5,000 publications that indicate the beneficial effect of the extract of certain mushrooms in cancer’ (Dr Pere Gascón (oncologist) for ‘InFocus’ – IHCAN and Nutrition May 2019).
The current standard medical solutions being offered to the cancer patient are not good enough. Why are we not offering complementary approaches that have real evidence of potentially making a difference to their outcomes to all cancer patients? These options may of course not be to everyone’s liking, but at least provide the patient with the choice and run through the potential benefits of doing so. Unfortunately I still hear from the cancer clients that I have the privilege of working with that their doctors/oncologists state that diet has nothing to do with helping treat cancer and improving their outcomes! This is an unbelievable statement and simply does not make any medical or biochemical sense. Why wouldn’t the food that you consume be the cornerstone of any treatment plan? Food is one of the most powerful medicines known to human kind. It can literally switch genes on and off (nutrigenomics).
A ketogenic approach should not be positioned as a diet, but instead as a medicine. It is not always appropriate for everyone to pursue (even if they wish to do so), especially if there are significant imbalances in the microflora/bacteria (dysbiosis) and permeability (leakiness) of the gut present due to an increased risk of moving toxins (LPS – the ‘exhaust’ of bad bacteria) across the gut barrier into systemic circulation. This is why it is important to work with a suitably qualified practitioner who can guide the client through the process of not only evaluating the suitability of using such an approach, but also personalising the intervention in respect of identifying other imbalances that may also be present, covering areas such as unidentified food sensitivities (which if present will contribute to a heightened inflammatory load on the body), lectin/histamine intolerances, micronutrient imbalances and digestive capacity in association with levels of dysbiosis.
Finally, whilst the above considerations are important, the approach should not stop there. All lifestyle elements should be thoroughly evaluated including but not limited to stress levels, sleep quality, toxic load, electromagnetic field exposure and movement. The therapeutic use of appropriate breathing and body exercises, meditation and near infra-red saunas in combination with cold water exposure are all therapeutic options to consider. This is all about the power of ‘marginal gains’, which we have written about before.
We need less dogma and more integration if we are to start really getting control of this devastating disease. The pieces of the puzzle are all there, we just need to start putting them together.