Supporting Your Health with Nutritional Eating for Cancer Patients

I’ll never forget the first time I walked into the infusion center with my dear friend who had just been diagnosed with breast cancer.

The many chairs were occupied with women receiving chemotherapy, hooked up to IV bags full of red-colored liquid. Only later would I learn that Adriamycin (Doxorubicin) truly lived up to its nickname: “The Red Devil.”

As a Naturopath, I had a basic understanding of what drives cancer, but when my friend was diagnosed, I began to study all the time. 

Watching my friend deal with the challenges — the nausea and the fatigue and the fear — breast cancer became personal. I determined to learn as much as possible to help her and ensure her good health.

The Warburg Effect

One of the first things I learned was how sugar drives cancer. Known as the Warburg Effect, sugar’s effect on cancer was discovered by Dr. Otto Warburg, a German scientist who won the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1931 for his discovery.

Simply put, Dr. Warburg discovered cancer chooses sugar, or glucose, over oxygen for energy. Even though the pathway is less efficient, produces less energy, and requires the cancer to work harder for the energy it receives, cancer still chooses sugar.

So, I was very surprised, to put it mildly, when four times during her 3-hour infusion, my friend was offered juice, hard candy, a popsicle, and — the cincher — a cupcake! 

Of course, my friend said “No,” but all the other women gladly took what was offered.

Deeply upset and concerned, I wanted to talk with the head of the infusion center, but I realized the sugar at the infusion center was one small piece of a much larger problem.

A different kind of comfort

While the women were receiving chemotherapy to “kill” the cancer cells, but eating sugar at the same, it was almost as if they were negating the work of the chemotherapy.

It’s like digging a hole at the beach: as you scoop the dry sand out, more rushes in to fill the space.

I know that during cancer treatment you want to feel comforted and these foods offer that.

Friends and family bring goodies because they mean well, and it’s hard to resist. Not only are treats delicious, you also don’t want to hurt the feelings of well-intended loved ones.

But the reality is that these foods feed the tumor — while the chemo is working to stop its growth.

Why would you feed cancer at the same time you are trying to kill it?

Nutrition for cancer is very complex. There are many environmental, emotional, genomic, and epigenetic factors which contribute to cancer, and they all need to be taken into consideration when creating a personalized nutritional plan.

While there are many contributing aspects towards cancer, dietary factors can contribute up to 35%!

Take comfort in healthy eating

Comfort foods are lovely. But true comfort comes from knowing you are supporting your health and doing everything you can to maximize treatment and minimize risk of recurrence.

Here are a few guidelines which form the foundation of a health-supportive way of eating:

1. Eliminate processed and refined sugar and dramatically reduce “natural” sugars.

Refined white sugar is everywhere in the Standard American Diet and as its use has increased, so has chronic disease. White sugar contributes to obesity, insulin resistance, diabetes — all contributors to cancer.

Tumor cells have more insulin receptors than healthy cells and elevated levels of insulin are known to promote tumor growth.

Healthier forms of sugar are foods which are found in nature: organic, raw honey (best if local and in a glass jar — not plastic), monk fruit, maple syrup, coconut sugar.

If your health permits it, these are to be used sparingly and only for a special occasion.

Although fruit is natural, it is processed by your body as a source of sugar, so eat it sparingly.

2. Embrace a plant-based diet

Nature has provided us with a rainbow of colorful fruits and vegetables!

The different colors of fruits and vegetables come from nutrients: the antioxidants, phytonutrients, vitamins, and minerals that counteract the oxidative stress involved in the microenvironment of cancer. These phytonutrients help protect the body from oxidative stress, modulate several key enzymatic pathways, and help your body boost your immune system.

The strong color in fruit and vegetables reveal their healing ability. Dark blue fruits contain anthocyanins that have potent antioxidant properties. These help remove free radicals from the body, providing protection against cancers.

Those richest in phytonutrients are the dark leafy greens, cruciferous vegetables, root vegetables, bitter greens, and tomatoes.

Cruciferous vegetables, such as cabbage, Brussel sprouts, cabbage onions, and garlic, contain sulforaphane which causes cancer cells to self-destruct, blocks DNA methylation, and controls certain processes in cell cycle progression.

All berries — blueberries, blackberries, mulberries, acai berries, and
in plums and blue-black grapes, pomegranates —contain anthocyanin, which gives these food the deep blue color. Acting as a powerful antioxidant, anthocyanin helps remove free radical from the blood, and can reduce DNA damage.

3. Choose meat carefully

If you are going to eat red meat or poultry, make sure it is grass-fed, free-range or wild-caught. These meats don’t contain antibiotics and chemicals such as growth hormones. Furthermore, they are very high in Omega 3 fatty acids.

An important fact which supports a plant-based diet is vegetarians are 40% less likely to develop cancer and cancer recurrence than meat eaters.

4. Add fermented foods daily

It’s no accident that every culture in the world knows the benefits of fermented foods, because they provide important nutrients for your body. Fermented foods support beneficial intestinal bacteria, aid digestion, and support immune function.

Options:

  • If you are able to eat dairy, yogurt and kefir are good choices.

  • Pickled vegetables such as kimchi, sauerkraut, and fermented pickles
  • Miso

5. Restrict carbs

The main function of carbohydrates is to provide energy and glucose is the main form of energy that the body uses. Carbohydrates that enter the body as sugar are broken down into glucose to be used by the cells for energy.

The Standard American Diet of about 2200 calories per day, will obtain 50% of these calories from carbohydrates — often in the form of processed foods such as cereals, non-whole grain bread, pastries, cookies, and chips.

When you eat a lot of carbs, more insulin is secreted. This causes cancer cells to take in more glucose, resulting in increased cancer cell growth.

Reducing carbohydrate intake can slow tumor growth by limiting the amount of excess glucose available to the cancer.

Maintaining even blood sugar levels to avoid spikes in glucose, which then provide extra sugars used by the cancer.

A whole-foods diet is rich in whole grains, legumes, fruits, vegetables, and fiber and has a low glycemic index.

6. Include healthy fats

Fats are an important part of your diet; the key is to choose healthy fats and avoid the ones that aren’t.

Two types of fats — saturated fat and trans fat— are known to be potentially harmful to your health.

Trans fats (trans fatty acids) are solid at room temperature (think of margarine, shortening, and beef or pork fat). This feature makes trans fats the fat of choice in foods that need to be “shelf stable.”

Trans fats appear in fast foods that contain partially hydrogenated vegetable oils: in fried foods (French fries, doughnuts, deep-fried fast foods), margarine and vegetable shortening, baked goods (cookies, cakes, pastries) and processed snack foods (crackers, microwave popcorn).

These are the worst fats for you and should be totally eliminated from your diet!

Saturated fats are found in fatty cuts of beef, pork, and lamb, dark chicken meat and poultry skin, and tropical oils such as palm oil, cocoa butter and lard. These fats should be avoided also.

“Bad fats” change the ratio between the Omega fats. When people grew and made the majority of their food, there was a ratio of Omega-6 to Omega-3 essential fatty acids (EFA) of approximately 1:1.  

Western diet foods have created an imbalance in the ratio; now there is approximately 15 times more Omega-6 than Omega-3. This causes inflammation, which can contribute to cancer growth.

Healthy fats include cold-pressed oils such as borage, evening primrose, black currant, flaxseed, grapeseed, hemp, olive, avocado, and fatty fish, such as salmon. 

I recommend extra virgin olive oil be the main oil you use and the greener in color, the higher the content polyphenols it contains. Plant polyphenols, such as those found in extra virgin olive oil, have properties which impact the activity and levels of sirtuins, proteins that regulate cellular health. 

Polyphenols have been shown to reduce cell proliferation and increase cell death in cancer cells, especially against breast cancer cells.

7. Use spices

Once again, Nature has provided us with what we need to be and stay healthy – spices. Humans have used spices for thousands of years, both for their flavor and their natural medicinal benefits, and every culture has unique spices as part of their cooking!

Spices are parts of plants, so they contain all the healing benefits of plants – phytonutrients, phytochemicals and phytosterols. They also contain vitamins and minerals and are a source of antioxidants, with many spices capable of anti-inflammatory and anti-tumor activity.

When I was a chef, I loved using fresh spices in my cooking! Fresh is ideal, but if they are not available, organic dried herbs and spices will add wonderful flavor to your food, and some nutritional benefit.

8. Follow the seasons

This is a concept seen in Chinese medicine — your diet changes as the seasons change.

Ever notice how when it’s cold outside, you crave warming foods such as stews, soups, and root vegetables?

And during the summer months, you naturally gravitate to eating lighter — lots of salads, fruits such as melon and watermelon, and even cold drinks.

Nature has provided us with what we need; foods which appear during a season actually provide the nutrients most needed during that season.

For example: root vegetables such as parsnips, sweet potatoes and pumpkin contain complex carbohydrates which keep you warm during the cold winter months.

9. Go organic and GMO-free

Food sprayed with chemicals will make you sick, whether you have a chronic illness or are concerned with prevention. Spraying food reduces its total nutritive value of phytonutrients, and antioxidants.

A good way to get healthy, organic food is by supporting your local farmers’ markets and subscribing to community CSA boxes.

Treat your body with the reverence it deserves and promote your longevity and good health with every bite! Fresh foods free of chemicals provide your body with nutrient dense nutrition to feed your cells and support your good health.

10. Hydrate

Up to 60% of human body is water. Water provides cell membranes with structure, which helps to keep harmful molecules outside of the cell. Adequate fluid is important for every process in your body, from elimination of waste to brain function.

Unfortunately, water coming from the tap is often filled with chemicals, from fluoride to perchlorate. The only solution is to filter your water in your home. There are many excellent filters available.

While water should be your main beverage, teas can also be healthy for you and offer phytochemicals and antioxidants, as seen with Green Tea.

Coffee contains unique phytochemicals but make sure it’s organic and don’t drink more than 1 or 2 cups a day! The sweet, frappe drinks which are sold in coffee shops are filled with sugar and should be avoided.

11. Enjoy!

Food is more than just fuel for our bodies. The food that we eat, when cooked with love and shared with family and friends, brings abundance and love and good health to all those at the table.