Feeding the Beast: Could Eating the Right Diet Starve Cancers Like Mine?
Co-authored by Dana G Smith
Like many people recently diagnosed with cancer, I felt helpless. Surgeons had removed a malignant tumor the size of a tennis ball on my left kidney, but enormous uncertainty about my prognosis remained. Statistically, there was a roughly 50% chance my cancer would return in the coming months, with potentially deadly implications. It felt as though the world was disintegrating around me, so I clung to any sense of agency I felt I still had. My treatment was prescribed by a world-class team, still, I wondered: What could I do outside the medical office that would affect whether I lived or died?
I asked several members of my treatment team, including a cancer nutritionist, what I should be eating, but the answers consistently came back with a degree of regretful uncertainty. There are not many reputable randomized controlled trials looking at diet and cancer outcomes. I was given the advice to eat well, be active, and stay in shape — good advice for all of us, but not specific to the goal of bending my prognosis.
Plenty of research suggests how a person’s diet can contribute to their risk of cancer. One recent study estimated that five percent of new cancer cases (roughly 80,000 people a year) are caused by poor nutrition, particularly eating diets that are high in processed meats and low in whole grains and dairy. But the best diet to follow after a diagnosis is much less well understood, despite good evidence that certain cancer cells may be particularly susceptible to changes in diet.
In many ways, cancer can be viewed as a metabolic problem — how cells consume and process nutrients. Cancer cells grow, divide, and spread differently than normal cells, and consequently, they have different nutritional and metabolic requirements. Many of the mutated genes in tumors affect the cells’ metabolism, and some chemotherapy drugs target metabolic processes in order to disrupt the…