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Looking back to Yes to Life Nutrition and Cancer Congress with Jerome Burne

17 May 2021

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The Congress kicked off with Sheila Dillon, presenter of the BBC Food Program for years, who was diagnosed with multiple myeloid leukaemia (a type of bone cancer) 10 years ago. ‘When I asked my oncologist if changing my diet that might help,’ she says, ‘I was told that nothing I could do would make the slightest difference to my cancer.’

‘Of course, I started researching online and came across very plausible accounts of the benefit of curcumin. So, while other patients were on chemo, I took curcumin and went into remission.’ As a result of her experience, Dillon has been following the food-cancer link and talked about her delight at seeing first-hand just how interested medical students are becoming in knowing more about nutrition.

Another experience which gave her confidence in her unconventional approach was an interview she did with Geoff Tansey, an internationally recognised expert and consultant on food policy. ‘It’s true that there is no conclusive proof of the benefits of specific foods and diet in cancer treatment because that kind of research is difficult to do because so many factors are involved and it is very expensive,’ he told her.

‘But for me as an individual, faced with conventional treatments that are far from 100 per cent effective and come with a high risk of a variety of side-effects, what evidence there is suggests that that the balance between risk and benefit for a nutritional approach is pretty good.’

Despite these positive signs, Dillon found little had changed in the way the mainstream was treating patients since she had been diagnosed.

‘We know that people on a Mediterranean diet, for instance, have a better survival rate,’ she said, ‘yet patients still get little or no specific or informed advice about food.’ Vague homilies like. A little of what you fancy does you good’ are still common.

‘In fact, we can do a great deal to minimise the risk of cancer,’ she continued ‘but we are rarely told about it. Patients are going to go on trying various food and diet options and the cancer establishment owes it to them to do a lot more to establish which ones work well and which ones don’t.’

One of the achievements of the Congress was to provide a much deeper dive into some of the complexity of a nutritional approach to cancer which shows why the integrative approach makes sense.

Dr Nasha Winters, who has both medical and nutritional qualifications in the US, talked about the benefits of fasting, both for reducing the risk of cancer and as a treatment when combined with an integrative approach.

‘If you can’t go without food for 13 hours – i.e. from 10 in the evening to 11 next morning, a few times a week,’ she said ’you won’t be able to easily switch between using our two sources of energy- glucose and fats. This puts you on the road to diabetes, obesity and insulin resistance and a raised amount of insulin growth factor, one of the compounds that can stimulate cancer growth.’

And it’s not just fasting that can change your chances of cancer and other metabolic diseases. ‘The official view is that developing cancer is just a case of bad luck and there is little we can do about it,’ says Winters. ‘Actually, there is a lot we can do. Cancer is not just the result of an unlucky mutation but is strongly affected by our lifestyle and the way that is shaped by society.

‘For instance, changes in food production have had major impact on the way our bodies produce energy. We have evolved to want more of sweet-tasting foods but not in the quantities we are consuming now.

‘A hundred years ago American were eating an average of 90 lbs a head per year of sugar. In 2007 50% of the population were eating 180lb a year. This is a recipe for a variety of chronic diseases, not just cancer.

‘So, if you know about nutrition,’ Winters continued, ‘it shouldn’t come as a surprise that for some cancers, such as those in the brain, the high-fat low- carb ketogenic diet, which lowers blood sugar, can be beneficial.

Not only that, but there are clinical reports that it can also reduce the side-effects of chemotherapy. And you can still make food delicious with herbs and spices.

Meanwhile, we are all eating less of various hugely beneficial foods, rich in nutrients, such as butter, vegetables, legumes and eggs, which has a different impact on our health.

But even when a diet is generally accepted as healthy, such as the Mediterranean diet, the way it is used in other cultures, for instance UK and USA, very often ignores its social and communal aspects,’ Winters says. ‘It’s part of a tradition of eating local food and when that’s lost, the population becomes over-fed, under nourished and more vulnerable to cancer.’

Here again falling ill and developing cancer has little to do with luck or even with genes.

Dr Winters comments about the benefits or animal products may have raised hackles on vegan necks. Such complications and disagreements around healthy/unhealthy foods was tackled by Dr Rob Verkerk of the Alliance for Natural Health.

He first plunged right into probably the most fiercely fought topics of the food wars – meat: cancer protecting or causing? His take was that while processed meats carried some risk, especially where nitrites were involved, air cured meats were safer. Similarly, commercially raised animals, stressed, treated regularly with antibiotics and other chemicals were best avoided if you could afford grass fed animals.

Some of the speakers

Dr Verkerk also talked about another controversial ingredient – the lectins found in the pea and bean family that need to be removed by long cooking or pressure cooking if you are in a hurry. They are well known to increase the risk of unpleasant digestive symptoms such as, nausea, vomiting, stomach upset, and diarrhoea and they can also interfere with the absorption of minerals, especially calcium, iron, phosphorus, and zinc.

‘But they also have definite benefits’, Vekerk reminded us. ‘They can act as an antioxidant, which protects cells from damage caused by free radicals. They also slow down digestion and the absorption of carbohydrates, which may prevent sharp rises in blood sugar and high insulin levels.’

‘So, the best diet for cancer is one that recognises the need for both quality and diversity,’ he says. ‘This has become even more important as the evidence comes in of the wide range of responses individuals can have to the same foods. Understanding the part played by variations in our DNA and the different strains of bacteria in our guts will make for a much more personally tailored approach to diet.‘

Dr Penny Kechagioglou, a clinical oncologist at the university hospitals of Coventry and Warwickshire told how she was regularly asked why she talks about food and health. ‘Patients think that because I am a regular oncologist I wouldn’t be interested. But what’s odd is that oncologists don’t talk about nutrition.

‘As well as making a valuable contribution to treatment, a knowledge of food and diet can also help with side effects of standard treatments, such as the malnutrition and diarrhoea that can follow radiotherapy.

‘I’ve treated over 1000 patients and they all have asked about why they are having problems related to food, such as bloating or putting on weight. But they rarely tell their doctors about them because they are afraid getting a hostile or dismissive response.

‘We need to be educating patients so they can inform oncologists about nutrition to battle cancer and the ways it can maintain general health. There shouldn’t be gap between the two approaches. We need a multi-disciplinary approach that allows clinicians with different skills to be involved. So, if a doctor doesn’t know about nutrition, they can refer to one.’

‘The whole world of cancer treatment is profoundly disempowering,’ said Functional Medicine practitioner Victoria Fenton who was presenting with Dr Kechagioglou. ’As a patient you have to find your own power; to have the confidence to say I want a nutritionist who specialises in cancer as part of my team.’

Congress Videos – now on sale

If you managed to join us for our Congress recently, wasn’t it an incredible weekend? We have had some brilliant feedback about all of the speakers and are delighted with how well it went. If you were not able to make it, or if you did and would like to watch the talks again, we now have the recordings ready to purchase.

Just click here to visit the congress website and purchase all the recordings: If you had recordings included with your ticket, you should have already received an email from us (please check your spam or junk folder if it hasn’t appeared in your inbox!).

If you want to purchase only one or two of the videos go to:

Funds raised go to support Yes to Life.

Jerome is a trustee of Yes to Life and one of Britain’s leading medical health journalists. In his writings, he brings the latest breakthroughs in medical health to a wider audience, emphasising that science-based does not always mean drug-based and that natural approaches are achieving astounding success rates.

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