By Dr. Nasha Winters, ND, FABNO
Today 1,600 people will die of cancer in the United States. That’s the same number of people that died yesterday and that will die tomorrow and perhaps many tomorrows beyond. In fact, nearly half of the adults in the United States experience cancer in their lifetime. In the last few years, twelve European Union countries have declared cancer as the #1 killer, over heart disease, and America will soon follow. Worse still, cancer rates are expected to double worldwide by 2030. It is time to heed the call to action.
Moving beyond the idea that cancer is a genetic disorder and simply bad luck, we must focus on the metabolic, cellular, and molecular conditions that fuel the cancer. This approach prompts us to move beyond treating the tumor and into examining the terrain, or the collection of physiological patterns within the body that interacts with what we put in, on, and around it. The reason for this new way of looking at cancer is clear: the tumor is merely the symptom of an underlying imbalance, and removing it rarely results in a cure. Finding tools to address metabolic imbalances and improve mitochondrial health (the part of our cells that produce energy) with little or no side effects has been my life’s work for over a quarter century.
Treating Cancer Today
Intellectualizing and focusing on cancer studies and statistics are but a small part of one’s treatment considerations. There are known “toxic burdens,” or circumstances that heighten your chance of getting cancer, such as cigarette smoking, eating CAFO-raised (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) animal products (which are loaded with nitrates, hormones, antibiotics, grains, etc.), and radiation exposure. However, there is another important factor in how likely you are to stay well or get sick as you interact with various toxic burdens: bio-individuality and its impact on mitochondrial health. It is no longer a matter of IF someone has toxic burden, but how much and how that burden interacts with that individual’s biochemistry and epigenetic blueprint. This is where understanding can greatly impact the future of human health.
A History of Troublesome Cancer Treatments
The multitude of reasons we’ve gotten to the point where half of us get cancer within our lifetime is beyond the scope of this discussion. However, it is important to note that the tumor-centric approach we have taken since we declared the “War on Cancer” in 1971, has only contributed to the problem rather than help us find a solution.
In the United States, the only therapies offered for cancer are chemotherapy, radiation, surgery, hormone blocking, and other targeted therapies, (although some immune therapies are starting to emerge). And yet, our survival rates have barely budged in over 50 years. Worse, cancer rates have risen at an astonishing pace, as has recurrence rates--around 70 percent, according to the American Cancer Society. Meanwhile, thanks to the mitochondrial-damaging effects of the aforementioned cancer therapies, since the 1970s there has been a 300 percent rise in brand new cancers in people previously diagnosed and treated!
Integrative Therapies for Treating Cancer
The ineffectiveness of contemporary cancer treatment, begs the question, are there better ways to treat cancer, or at least ways we can help make today’s cancer treatments more effective and less debilitating? The answer is yes. First, let’s define the concept of integrative oncology. I personally subscribe to the definition by my colleague, Dr. Donald Abrams, who describes it as “the rational, evidence-informed combination of conventional therapy with complementary interventions into an individualized therapeutic regimen that addresses the whole person (body, mind, spirit) with cancer.” There are many approaches to supporting the body through a cancering process, enhancing outcomes of standard of care (SOC) while improving quality of life and preventing cancer recurrence. I use the word “cancering” purposefully, as a verb, as it describes a process that is dynamic, and therefore, changeable, making cancer much more like a manageable chronic disease versus a death sentence. Unfortunately, many of these integrative therapies are rarely heard of in this country, examples include, but aren’t limited to, viscum album extract (mistletoe), high-dose IV vitamin C, cannabis, hyperthermia, and the ketogenic diet.
The common theme of the therapies noted above is their gentle yet powerful impact on restoring terrain rhythm, balance and cellular communication, as described in more detail in my book,The Metabolic Approach to Cancer, while bringing synergy to otherwise toxic therapies such as chemo. In fact, in some cases these outside-the-box interventions have been shown to impart a successful response on their own, pushing back the cancer burden.
Other common denominators of these integrative therapies includeimmunomodulation (balancing of the immune system), anti-inflammatory properties, and induction ofapoptosis (programmed cell death, which is a process that differentiates between healthy cells and cancer cells). Our healthy cells go through cycles and are recycled when they get run down, yet cancer cells become immortal, more damaged and mutated and refuse to die. Lowering ofangiogenesis (blood vessel growth to tumors), regulating metabolic pathways, and positively impacting epigenetic expression (the hand you were dealt, but influenceable by lifestyle choices) are a few more ways these adjuvant therapies play a role in cancer care.
Treating Cancer with a Keto Diet
For the purposes of this article, we'll focus more on the ketogenic diet, which has been used therapeutically since the 1920s in the treatment of epilepsy and is now gaining momentum (based on research) as a powerful tool to seemingly impact the scourge of ALL chronic illness today,including cancer. In fact, to date, there are 21 clinical trials underway specific to the ketogenic diet and cancer.
Today, we Americans consume more than half our calories in the form of carbohydrates. These carbs drastically hinder our ability to ward off chronic illness and engage in a healthy life because they have a negative impact on our mitochondrial function. You may remember from grade-school biology class that these important cellular components are responsible for making our energy (ATP), but they are also in charge of our aging process and apoptosis as mentioned above.
Because the ketogenic diet is a high-fat, low-carbohydrate diet, it returns us to the balanced macronutrient intake we enjoyed prior to the rise of the Industrial Food Revolution. That was a time when we were more like a hybrid engine, burning fat as readily as we burn carbohydrates today, making for a more resilient mitochondria. This fact is meaningful when addressing cancer because being in a state of metabolic flexibility (that hybrid engine) is the proverbial fountain of youth and the harbinger of healthy mitochondrial function, and mitochondrial dysfunction lies at the core of all chronic illness today. One of the underlying hallmarks of cancer is damage to our healthy cells and a lowered capacity to generate energy and repair. Additionally, metastasis, orthe development of secondary malignant growths at a distance from a primary cancer site,is also related to damaged mitochondria (our intracellular power plants), which interface with the fuel from our food, environment, thoughts, and our body’s energy demands.
With too few or too many damaged mitochondria, we lose our ability to perform “apoptosis” (biologically programmed cell death) and stop the growth of cancer. A ketogenic diet can be nature’s checks and balancing system, and being in a state of ketosis, or metabolic flexibility (as each of us were designed to access as needed), is what lends itself to enhancing treatment outcomes, preventing disease, and restoring us to a natural state of health and vitality. More specifically, we have learned that being in a state of ketosis, DIRECTLY impacts ALL 10Hallmarks of Cancer, making the cancer cells more vulnerable to the influence of all cancer therapies, stopping further growth, inducing cell death, enhancing immune function, changing epigenetic expression, altering angiogenesis, to name a few! And most importantly, the remaining healthy cells and the human wrapped around that cancer process, repeatedly report a higher quality of life with more energy and less side effects to treatment.
Misinformation and misunderstanding about the keto diet have created a lot of controversy and left many people perceiving it as a starvation diet or a fast track to dangerousketoacidosis (a buildup of acids in the blood that usually relate to elevated blood sugar and oxidative stress along with blood ketone levels well above 15 mmol). However, many cancer patients have successfully stalled or pushed back tumor burden (the amount of cancer in the body) with a ketogenic lifestyle (and in some cases, fasting) even when other therapies failed. They have also found it to be enhancing and synergetic as an adjuvant to standard of care cancer treatment.
All my years of experience and exploration around cancer have taught me one thing for certain: there is no single treatment, diet, pill or potion that effectively staves off cancer. However, implementing a diet that creates metabolic flexibility (the ability to switch from carb burning to fat burning) that results in high enough blood ketone levels to keep you in ketosis) can help manage a chronic-disease process. As someone who has used the ketogenic lifestyle for myself and tens of thousands of patients over nearly three decades, I can tell you it has proven to be a safe and effective means to support the whole body, mind, and spirit during the very challenging time that cancer invokes.I encourage everyone facing cancer to find a practitioner that specializes in integrative oncology and metabolic nutritional therapies to create the best outcome. Don’t have cancer? Great! The ONLY cure is prevention, so start to explore your own terrain, perhaps starting with the questionnaire in our book,The Metabolic Approach to Cancer ($23.35 hardcover) , as a means of knowing what is influencing your terrain and allowing you to take charge and not become a statistic! As one of my clients says, “Keep calm and keto on!”