7 min read
I want to take you back with me to when I had just started university. I chatted to my new friend, and now business partner about our visions as budding nutritionists. It turned out we have similar goals albeit different interests, which is why we make awesome business partners. She also puts up with my weirdness. We got onto the topic of cancer. I remember uttering these words:
“I’d like to think I would deal with cancer naturally, rather than use drugs from big pharma.’
I’m a bit ashamed of admitting this but I think it’s very important to. I wasn’t stupid. I wasn’t uneducated. I had a deep mistrust in the pharmaceutical industry, like many other people out there. In my head I saw all these charities and fundraising events taking place over the years, raising money for an industry that in the public’s eyes wasn’t coming up with the goods. Nearly everyone knows of someone, or someone close to them, who has had cancer. It’s a common cause, and one that can elicit strong emotions from people.
Before university, I couldn’t have explained to you how cancer was formed. Hell, I didn’t even know the workings of a cell. Sitting in the lecture room being shown the complexities of the inside of a cell I fell in love with science at 33 years old. See, I got into science late. I went down the drama school route instead. I took a long detour, and I feel I am back where I belong now. You and I aren’t breaking up again science. I promise.
I went to university to learn about nutrition, and I underestimated just how sciencey the subject was. I thought I knew a lot already. How wrong I was. It turned out I had a knack for science and scientific writing. It also unfolded that I would excel in modules like immunology, biochemistry, microbiology and cell biology, performing better in these modules than my nutrition ones. Whoops! So, when it came to choose our optional modules, I decided to shun the easier Sports Nutrition module due to my personal training work history and take the harder module Cancer Biology and Therapeutics.
I was the only nutrition student among a load of biomedical and pharmaceutical students. Even though there was only a fractional element of nutrition to the class, this module taught me so much more than any other part of the course. Why? It taught me to confront my personal biases. It made me a better critical thinker. It blew my mind. No one was hiding the cure for cancer. What I discovered was many researchers, desperately trying to fight something that became drug resistant, as quickly as they were creating new therapies.
Cancer is a bitch – I mean complicated.
I don’t think people appreciate how complex the human body is. For those that didn’t go beyond GCSE biology (like me) I want to introduce you to a human cell. The video is only an artist’s visualisation but it’s pretty cool to see.
Why am I showing you this? Because cancer happens on a cellular and molecular level. Therefore, you need to appreciate what is happening on a cellular and molecular level. A cell is dynamic with thousands of reactions happening per second in each cell. Just like humans, a cell has their own organs called organelles which all have their own specific function. Fairly recently a cell’s surface was determined to be just as dynamic as the inner part. During a cell’s lifecycle it will either divide, die, or differentiate into another cell type. If any of these processes get messed up, then uncontrolled growth can happen.
Inside our cells, the nucleus contains our DNA - our blueprints. DNA is read by DNA reading proteins called RNA polymerases, to help create more proteins that the body needs and some of these proteins are needed during regulation of the cell lifecycle (Proteins are very important!). If genes become mutated, this can cause them to be be upregulated (more protein produced or greater protein activity) or downregulated (less protein produced or lower protein activity), and if the cell’s machinery cannot fix these errors this can lead to cancer. Mutations can also be inherited, and about 3 – 10% of cancers are estimated to be linked to these inherited mutations.
Luckily cells are very sophisticated, and they have machinery that can repair any DNA damage. If this fails, then cells can undergo programmed death, preventing the cell from dividing. They sacrifice themselves to save the whole organism. But sometimes this fails too. Cancer develops. Mutations leading to abnormal division of cells are not enough for cancer to form. It is an accumulation of multiple mutations and disruption to regulatory mechanisms that provide the perfect environment for cancer to thrive. We have genes that can promote cancer (oncogenes) and genes that suppress cancer (tumour suppressor genes), and if you have several oncogenic mutations along with several tumour suppressor mutations, this can make the cancer harder to treat.
You see how complex this can be? We have only touched the surface. This is just the initiation of cancer. There are two other stages: promotion and progression. There’s no way I can go through all of this in such a short blog, but I will point out some key moments during tumour development:
Tumours can develop their own blood supply.
Tumours can evade the immune system, avoiding destruction.
Cancer invades adjacent tissues and can travel to distant locations away from the original site, starting new cancerous colonies.
Tumours can become drug resistant.
You can’t eat your way out of this.
Lemons can’t cure cancer.
Vitamin C can’t cure cancer.
Broccoli can't cure cancer.
Turmeric can't cure cancer.
Garlic can't cure cancer.
Honey can't cure cancer.
Cutting out sugar from your diet can't cure cancer.
Eating an alkaline diet can't cure cancer.
Cannabis oil can’t cure cancer.
Some foods have anti-cancer properties. That doesn’t mean they will cure cancer. It means eating them as part of your diet can give your body stuff it needs to help protect itself from cancer forming.
As for not eating sugar and alkaline diets, these are pervasive myths that won’t die. There is no evidence to suggest cutting out sugar cures cancer, scientists have tried. Neither will eating an alkaline diet. Cancer cells need amino acids and fats as well, and even if you were to eat no carbohydrates whatsoever, your body can turn protein and fats into glucose through other pathways because all your cells need glucose. Cutting out carbohydrates also means risking missing out on other nutrients, or possibly eating too few calories at a time where cancer patients may be losing weight or be immunocompromised. As for eating an alkaline diet, this goes against basic biochemistry as you cannot alter body pH, and even if you could, yes, the cancer cells would die, but so would the rest of your cells.
Cancer is a disease of the genome. It has been around since dinosaurs roamed the earth. Whilst modern environmental and lifestyle factors can increase the risk for cancer, age is actually the biggest risk factor. The older we get, the more chances there are for mutations to happen, and because we are living longer, we see it a lot more.
There are many different types of cell and many different types of mutations. Each cancer type behaves differently, and each cancer type responds differently to therapies depending on what mutations are present, and what stage the cancer is at. Whilst I live in hope that one day there will be a cancer cure for all cancers, I doubt it because of the above.
If you have cancer please, please, please, listen to your doctor. Chemo isn’t great, but it still works. Cancer researchers are making breakthroughs and better therapies are being produced all the time. A dietitian may work with you on a diet to compliment your cancer treatment, and the advice given will be very specialised and tailored to your individual case as no two cases or people are the same.
As for people pedalling crap that eating any food will cure cancer, fuck you. Stop this harmful BS. You stop people from getting proper treatment that will give them the best prognosis. Funny how you say it's wrong how big pharma makes money, but it's ok for you to make money selling your products or books to desperate people.
Hanahan, D. and Weinberg, R. A. (2011) 'Hallmarks of Cancer: The Next Generation', Cell, 144(5), pp. 646-674.