Choice Nutrition’s Dr. Evan McCarvill explains how proven Natural Medicine can play a significant, integrative role in the treatment of cancer patients!
If you missed the first part of this article, please scroll down to September’s Healthy Living Blog!
I hope you enjoyed last month’s introductory article on the principles of cancer care in Natural Medicine.
This month, we’ll discuss some of the specific natural therapies and strategies that may be of use in your fight against cancer!
Fruits and Vegetables
The first thing to emphasize about an ideal diet for cancer is an abundance of fruits and vegetables. To combat oxidative stress, you want to eat an entire rainbow of various plant foods, including organic green vegetables and red fruits (e.g. Broccoli, turnip, cauliflower, cabbage, brussel sprouts, raspberries, blackberries, blueberries, tomatoes, garlic). This strategy is critical in cancer care, but perhaps is even more critical for cancer prevention.
As mentioned in the last article, xenobiotics, or xenohormones, are foreign chemicals that act like cancer-promoting hormones in our bodies, such as dioxans and bisphenol which act like estrogen. Many herbicides and pesticides fall into this category. These are usually fat-soluble compounds, and so tend to hang around in our fatty tissues. Ideally, you should buy organic produce, but if that is not possible in all cases, produce should of course be thoroughly washed before consumption.
Be very careful about raw food and juicing diets. They are often promoted in alternative circles as cancer-treatment diets. However, they are usually overly deficient of protein content, and tend to promote a higher glycemic load. In my opinion, and because of the perspective I have adopted from my Traditional Chinese Medicine training, raw foods are not always ideal. Raw foods are alive, and can be energizing and healing to a degree, but well-cooked foods are more easily broken down, requiring less energy expended by the digestive system, and yielding healthy nutrients more readily for the body’s use against disease. Thus, steamed, stir-fried, and stewed vegetables are an excellent way to go.
meat & fish
Adequate protein is important for healthy immune function and healing of tissues. When it comes to protein, animal foods are acceptable, but quality is very important. Vegan or vegetarian diets are often promoted for cancer, because typical commercial red meat is known to increase tumor growth. However, this is likely because most factory-farmed meat is grain fed, making it very rich in omega 6 fatty acids, rather than omega 3 fatty acids, meaning that it promotes inflammation, which in turn promotes cancer. Wild game, and organic pasture-fed meat, tend to be much richer in omega 3 fatty acids, relative to omega 6, which is much better for prevention/reduction of inflammation. Factory-farmed meat is also typically raised with the aid of growth hormones, which obviously should be avoided as well, as the traces of growth hormone you may be ingesting will have an unwanted “growth” effect on any tumors or precancerous tissues. You must only eat clean organic meat, raised on clean feed and without the use of growth hormones. Additionally, wrapping meat in plastic tends to taint them fat-soluble plasticizers, which are another source of those nasty xenobiotics. Ask for your meat to be wrapped in butcher paper.
If finding organic red meat is difficult, or too expensive, then poultry is generally better for a cancer diet, and so can be used more as a staple for adequate dietary protein. Of course, it is also preferable to eat only free-range, organically raised poultry, if possible. The skin of poultry must also be removed before cooking.
Dairy cows are often fed corn and corn silage, as this tends to stimulate increased milk production, but unfortunately, also increases the undesired insulin-like growth factors in the milk, as well as increased levels of pro-inflammatory omega 6 fatty acids. Bovine growth hormone is also often given to further increase milk production. Once again, these factory farming practices should be avoided as much as possible to minimize exposure to these cancer-causing factors. Certified organic dairy products, produced by feeding cows only grass and hay, should be sought.
Try to avoid fish such as tuna, shark, swordfish and marlin, as these fish are high on the food chain, and thus tend to accumulate chemical toxins, such as mercury, dioxins, and flame retardants. Favor instead, wild deep water fish such as salmon, sardines, and herring, as these are excellent sources of protein, as well as omega 3 fatty acids.
To reduce the anabolic (growth-promoting) hormones of insulin and insulin-like growth factors, one of the most important things is to eat a low-glycemic (low sugar) diet. Breast, colon, and prostate cancers are particularly sugar sensitive. Sugar, especially simple and refined sugars, are also pro-inflammatory, which is another reason to avoid them in cases of cancer.
A low glycemic diet helps to prevent most cancers, slows their progression, as well as improves responses to cancer therapies. Such a diet means not only avoiding the more obvious sweets and candies, but also reducing foods containing sugar-releasing starches, such as wheat, white potatoes, and bananas. Instead, foods like heavy rye bread, steel cut oatmeal, peas, beans, berries, and sweet potatoes, should be favored.
Cancer cells crave sugar for energy to fuel their relentless growth, and so produce radically increased numbers insulin receptors on their surfaces, so that they can absorb blood sugar more easily. One recent study showed that colon cancer cells grew 8 times faster than normal, for three hours after a high glycemic meal. And this was a meal without any obvious sugar or dessert. So it is not enough to simply avoid the more obvious sugar sources. It is very important to pay attention to the glycemic index.
“Glycemic index” is a term referring to the rate at which the starches in food are converted into sugar in the body. After being processed by the liver into glucose, there is a surge of blood sugar after a meal. Foods with a lower glycemic index will produce less of a sugar surge, thus less of an insulin surge, and so are more ideal as part of a cancer diet.
As with a patient with diabetes, high sugar-releasing foods should be consumed in smaller portions, less often. There are many online resources with food lists, such as www.lowglycemicdiet.com which can guide you. Also, you can see a summary outlined in the table a bit further down this article, which organizes many common foods into “high”, “medium”, and “low” glycemic categories.
The higher the number on the glycemic index, the greater the sugar-release rate from that food, and so the more it should be avoided. A rating of 60 or less would be considered a non-stress food that can be consumed freely. Foods ranging from 65 to 80 would be considered “medium”, less healthful, and should be limited. Foods rating 80 or above will most definitely boost insulin-like growth factors if eaten in large amounts, and should definitely be avoided or severely limited. There is no need to put a fine point on exact numbers. Just bear in mind that those foods with higher numbers should be consumed less, and those with lower numbers should be more emphasized in the diet.
Generally speaking, some fruits to limit would be kiwi, banana, mango, pineapple, watermelon, and all dried fruit including dates and raisins. Fruit canned in juice is acceptable, but not fruit canned in syrup. Fruit juices should be diluted by about 50%. Vegetables to limit would be cooked beets, cooked carrots, white potato, corn, and parsnips. Basmati rice is a better choice than polished white rice, but brown rice is best. Any refined or white grains should be avoided, as well as very soft spongy breads. Unleavened bread, such as wraps, pitas, and tortillas will have a lower glycemic index than the same amount of flour that has been puffed up into a loaf. The act of leavening the bread alters the starch’s molecular structure, causing it to more rapidly break down into sugar.
Agave syrup is sometimes promoted as a low glycemic sweetener, but is actually quite high in fructose and should be avoided. Stevia and xylitol would be more ideal sugar substitutes.
Specific Natural Products to consider
*Once again, please consult with your Naturopathic Doctor or other healthcare provider about the ideal natural products, and their dosages, to take as part of your cancer treatment plan. This is especially true if you are taking prescription medications with the potential to interact.
Green Tea (EGCG)
Unfermented green tea from the Camellia sinensis leaf is a source of compounds called polyphenols, with powerful anti-oxidant properties. The green tea component epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG) is an anti-oxidant two hundred times more powerful than vitamin E. Many large-scale studies show that green tea has significant preventative value in cancer, especially if you consume 5 to 10 cups per day. However, that is a LOT of liquid tea to drink, and more caffeine than most people can handle. The best therapeutic doses are achievable with green tea (EGCG) taken in more highly concentrated supplement form; low in caffeine. Among other beneficial mechanisms, green tea extract is an anti-oxidant, inhibits cancer cell replication, promotes cellular differentiation and apoptosis (programmed cell death), and helps to lower inflammation.
Curcumin is a derivative of yellow curry spice, also known as turmeric or Curcuma longa. Curcumin induces apoptosis (programmed cell death) in non-viable cells. It also inhibits cancer at all steps to its spread; initiation, promotion, and progression. It has been shown in numerous studies to be a potent anti-inflammatory, and helps reduce pain. It blocks the formation of new blood vessels that can feed a growing tumor. Supplementation with concentrated curcumin can be enhanced by combining the dose with an eighth of a teaspoon of black pepper, to enhance its absorption by the body. With all these benefits, it should come as no surprise that, dietary intake is protective against various cancers. You really can’t go wrong with recipes that call for turmeric!
Modified Citrus Pectin
Modified citrus pectin (MCP) is a food grade substance, derived from the pulp of citrus fruit, treated with high heat and acid to break it down into small fragments. In order for cancer to metastasize (i.e. spread to new locations in the body), mobilized cancer cells need to “stick” to new tissues using a binding protein called galectin-3 on their surfaces. MCP acts like putting flour on Scotch tape. It neutralizes the “stickiness” of the cancer cells, making them less able to attach themselves to new tissues. Studies in rats and mice show that MCP can significantly reduce the spread of breast, prostate, colorectal, lung, melanoma, sarcoma, and other cancers. Phase I trials in humans have also been very promising. MCP can provide essential protection for patients undergoing tumor biopsy, surgery, or other treatments that may cause a tumor to shed cells.
Indole-3-carbinol (I3C) is a compound found richly in brassica vegetables, such as broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, Brussel sprouts, kale, bok choy, watercress, radishes, horseradish, rutabaga, turnips, collard greens, and mustard greens. Thus, aside from supplementation of the concentrated form, some of its benefits can be obtained simply from emphasizing these vegetables in the diet. These foods are strongly associated with cancer prevention. I3C downregulates estrogen receptors, which can be helpful in estrogen-dependent cancers. It inhibits breast cancer recurrence by 90%, compared with 60% as with the drug Tamoxifen. It induces apoptosis and regulates apoptosis genes. It can also arrest the growth and multiplication of cancer cells.
Also known as Ganoderma lucidum, this mushroom extract contains cytotoxic triterpenes, which inhibit DNA synthesis, and therefore cellular replication. Reishi also influences apoptosis, and reduces cancer resistance to chemo therapies. It also helps to regulate immune/inflammatory function, and even helps to suppress cell migration and adhesion to new tissues (i.e. metastasis). It can reduce the invasiveness of breast and prostate cancers.
Melatonin is the natural hormone produced by the pineal gland in the brain. Levels vary with the diurnal cycle, peaking around 2AM, to induce restful sleep. Melatonin production is suppressed by natural sunlight, which promotes alertness. Exposure to artificial light too late in the day, working rotating night shifts, and staying up past 2AM, disrupt the normal cyclical production of melatonin in the body, and are associated with increased risk of breast cancer. Long-term safety of supplemental melatonin is well-established, but it should NEVER be taken at any other time than in the late evening around bedtime. This is to keep it in accordance with the body’s natural biological cycles. Melatonin should also be avoided in cases of disseminated cancers, such as leukemia, lymphoma, or multiple myeloma. However, it has been shown to improve survival time as a sole agent in other terminal cancers. It is an antioxidant in low doses, and a pro-oxidant to cancer cells in higher doses. It modulates hormones, and inhibits cancer initiation. It improves glucose tolerance, modulates stress and immune responses, and promotes apoptosis.
Also known as Silybum marianum, milk thistle is a gentle and effective herb for liver support. It protects the liver from chemical damage, and so can be recommended for any patient undergoing chemotherapy, or to support liver function where there may be primary liver cancer or metastases in the liver. It supports the liver’s ability to retain abundance of the essential anti-oxidant glutathione.
Vitamin C is essential for immune health, connective tissue, and a wide variety of other physiological functions. It is also often very low in patients with advanced cancer. Low levels of vitamin C in these populations are associated with shorter survival time and increased inflammatory markers. Vitamin C is also known to support stem cell differentiation, which is relevant, as most cancer cells have lost much of their differentiation. This vitamin is also anti-apoptotic for normal healthy cells, but pro-apoptotic (programmed cell death) for cancer cells. Intravenous vitamin C (IVC) can be given in order to achieve blood concentration levels far above what can be accomplished with just oral supplementation. This is to promote peroxide formation, and selective destruction of cancer cells. It is known to extend life in terminal patients. However, IVC must be applied appropriately. It is incompatible with EGFR inhibitor drugs such as Erbitux and Cetuximab. Vitamin C also actually promotes progression of leukemias. Use with caution, and only with the advice of your healthcare provider. Used properly, IVC can stabilize most cancer cases, arresting growth of tumors. Some of the best results are seen with lymphomas, kidney, and bladder cancers.
CLICK HERE to learn more about IV Vitamin C therapies available at Choice Nutrition
The active form of vitamin D, that is the form that is actually activated by sunlight, is Vitamin D3, also known as 1,25 hydroxy-cholecalciferol, or 1-25(OH)D. Just watch for Vitamin D3 on the label. You don’t want Vitamin D2, for instance, as this may actually lower blood levels of the active D3. Studies have shown that a majority of people are suboptimal in their blood levels of active D3, including in sunny places like Hawaii and Arizona. This can perhaps be attributed to strict sun avoidance and use of sunscreens, in order to avoid skin cancer. A study conducted in Toronto showed that 3 out of every 4 women were markedly deficient in D3. When you consider the relative lack of direct sunlight we receive in Canada, especially for half the year, you realize that at least modest supplementation is warranted to achieve optimal levels. Adequate vitamin D levels are correlated with reduced risk of “death of all causes”, including cardiovascular and immune diseases. For use against cancer, vitamin D3 helps normal cell differentiation, enhances cell-to-cell communication, promotes apoptosis, and reduces inflammation. Cancerous tumors despise this vitamin so much they will actively try to neutralize it and prevent its activation.
While the science is still in its infancy regarding the mind-body connection, and the real impact that our mental/emotional states can have on our physical health, it is all too obvious to surviving cancer patients and experienced doctors that this connection is real. It has been shown for instance, that depression increases the risk of breast cancer by 42%. In addition, pro-inflammatory cytokines (cell signals) are elevated in patients with depression, and we all know by now that chronic inflammation promotes cancer. The stress hormone adrenaline protects cancer cells from dying by their programmed self-destruction. Adrenaline also tends to promote tumor growth, and blunts the effectiveness of chemotherapy. Chronic stress will also negatively impact the function of the immune system and thus the body’s natural ability to detect and destroy non-viable cancer cells. What all this means is that learning to relax, reducing inflammation and chronically-elevated stress hormones, is among the most important cancer therapies of all.
Of course, this is easier said than done. A cancer diagnosis can have a severe emotional impact on anyone. People are suddenly faced with the reality of their own mortality, sometimes for the first time. There can be significant fear, anxiety, regret, resentment, grieving, and stress. Patients can struggle with a sense of hopelessness, a loss of control over one’s life, and a fear of becoming a burden to family members. These are concerns and issues that must be addressed. They are normal responses to a situation as dire as a cancer diagnosis, and the last thing you want to do is internalize such negative feelings.
People who think they are dying can often forget they still have living to do, meaning they need to be working towards fulfilled mental health through self-effort, as well as through professional therapy. Psychotherapy and counseling, and other stress management techniques in day to day life, such as deep -breathing, positive affirmations, relaxing hobbies, and positive social interactions, can be invaluable. You don’t need to treat cancer like a death sentence. Doing what you can to maintain a positive outlook, making any necessary stress-management changes in your life, engaging and taking charge of your health, and deciding within your own being to be a survivor, can make a big difference in your response to therapy, and prospects for recovery.
There are a myriad of other natural substances and therapies that may be of benefit in cases of cancer. Dosages and specific combinations, especially with any prescription drugs, should be discussed with your Naturopathic Doctor or other healthcare provider. But I hope these last articles have given you a good idea of the principles of care you can expect from well-applied natural medicine in cancer treatment. If you or anyone you know is being affected with cancer, then know that there is an abundance of viable tools and other support to be a survivor, and to beat this terrible disease.
*A Naturopathic Physician, or Integrative Medical Doctor, experienced in Natural/Integrative oncology, can help you to make use of these therapies in a sensible, safe, and effective manner. This article will serve to outline some of the broader concepts in this field, but it is important to remember to not self-treat with any such therapies if you are dealing with a cancer diagnosis.
Always seek professional advice, as cancer is unforgiving of time wasted!
Yours in health,
Dr. Evan McCarvill, B.Sc., Doctor of Naturopathic Medicine (ND)
- McKinney, Neil. Naturopathic Oncology: An Encyclopedic Guide for Patients & Physicians, 2ndEdition, 2012. Print