Thousands of scientific papers have been published on the link between diet and the treatment and prevention of cancer. But in practice food is still considered a marginal aspect of cancer care.
I was diagnosed with Multiple Myeloma (MM), a cancer of the bone marrow, in December 2011.
At every chemo session I was offered a white bread sandwich, a fizzy drink, and a chocolate bar or packet of biscuits.
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Nurses told me that there was no point in worrying about what I ate. “Worrying” is not what I or any other patient wants to do.
We want to know what will help us get through treatment in the best way possible, and what, if anything, might keep a recurrence at bay – and that includes how diet may help.
We do not want to feel like a helpless pawn in a big and overwhelming system.
But unless you are very lucky, you will not be told about any of the latest food-related research when you enter the parallel universe that is cancer treatment.
Previously I have made three editions of Radio 4’s The Food Programme about cancer and diet, and it is a subject close to my heart.
The last one on prostate cancer in 2009 was eye-opening.
Geoff Tansey, who I had known for many years as one of the UK’s serious thinkers and writers about food policy, got in touch to say he had prostate cancer, was facing surgery and would the Food Programme like him to keep a diary.
Can a Mediterranean diet help prevent cancer?
Conner Middelmann-Whitney is a nutritionist and cook who specialises in the impact of diet on cancer prevention:
“There are a lot of things we can do that influence our cancer risk.
The world cancer research fund back in 2007… concluded that 60% of all cancers of the oesophagus, 45% of all colo-rectal cancers and 38% of breast cancers could be prevented if people ate a healthy diet, had a healthy body weight and engaged in regular physical activity.
The Mediterranean diet is a very natural, organic way of eating and you don’t have to live near the Mediterranean to eat that way.
It involves a lot of plant foods, a lot of healthy fats, nothing is excluded, which I think is a very important aspect of the Mediterranean diet.
A lot of people think that eating a healthy diet and a cancer protective diet means cutting all sorts of favourite foods out of your diet and that actually isn’t so.
The only foods that are omitted are heavily processed foods, refined flours and sugars and fats.
Seasonal vegetables and fruits, olive oil, lots of pulses and whole grains, herbs and spices, these very nourishing foods really make up the core of the Mediterranean diet.”
Research on the importance of diet in the prevention, complementary treatment and after-care of the commonest forms of prostate cancer is well-documented.
Professor Margaret Rayman, who runs the UK’s only post-graduate course for medics on nutritional medicine at the University of Surrey has written a book on it: Healthy Eating for Prostate Care.
Not that that made any difference to the doctors who treated Geoff Tansey.
They did not know about the research, and were uninterested in the fact that in the weeks after diagnosis he changed his diet dramatically (he went vegetarian and gave up dairy foods) which brought down his PSA (Prostate-Specific Antigen) levels equally dramatically.
PSA is a protein in the blood that is produced by the prostate gland. The higher a man’s PSA level, the more likely it is that he has prostate cancer.
Although there are no proven ways to prevent cancer, the NHS says eating a healthy balanced diet can help reduce your risk of developing certain cancers.
“We need to focus on the use of novel therapies that we have available,” says Dr Brian Durie, a specialist in Myeloma cancers in the US.
“In addition to that we can have an enhancement of the quality of life.
“We need to have good food, an avoidance of bad food and so one can treat the cancer and improve the quality of life.
“But it’s important not to be relying on the food.
“In the UK we don’t have enough of those randomised studies to say that ‘if you eat enough cabbage and broccoli and fruit juices and have some turmeric and maybe some wine and chocolate, yes this can be helpful, but it’s not going to be enough to cure cancer’.”
Professor Rayman says today more studies have been done, and there is more evidence, but medical attitudes remain much the same.
Our research confirmed that in most cancer centres in the UK, diet is still seen as almost meaningless in cancer treatment and aftercare.
Yet there is good science available on the subject, though not a lot of it is what medics call “gold standard” science.
There are almost no double-blinded, large scale, studies done on people because they are expensive, very hard to do and there is no financial incentive.
Who would make serious profit out of the discovery that mushrooms kill cancer cells?
Most of the research has been done on cancer cells in the laboratory or on animals. What the best of it shows is interesting implications in a range of foods.
Resveratrol, a chemical compound found in red and purple grapes has been studied for its anti-cancer properties
One of the best-researched foods (in the US and Ireland) is the spice turmeric.
Curcumin is a chemical compound found in the root of turmeric, which hasa general anti-inflammatory effect and quite specific effects on several forms of cancer, including mine.
Research has also been conducted on berries containing ellagic acid, which seems to curb cancer cells’ ability to grow their own blood supply,mushrooms (the polysaccharides), green tea, as well as the cabbage and onion families.
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From my experience as a cancer patient I think many people fear that they are being ungrateful for the medical care they have had by bringing up issues such as diet.
I am overwhelming grateful to the team who treated me and still check on me, at St Bartholomew’s Hospital in London – they personify the best of the NHS in love, caring and medical brilliance, and they always make me laugh.
But why can’t we build on that– by bringing good nutrition and good food into that world-class care and treatment?
As my consultant Professor Jamie Cavenagh said: “I think we should take more of a ‘Why not?’ attitude.
“Why not advise patients to eat better, add turmeric to their diet, drink more green tea, take exercise?”
It won’t do you any harm, and it might well do you a lot of good.
By Sheila DillonPresenter, Radio 4’s Food Programme