Cancer patients, and their friends and families, are often faced with contradictory information on what to do about diet. On the one hand there are large numbers of mainstream oncologists and dieticians who tell patients to eat what they like so long as they keep the calories up and are able to get through chemotherapy or radiotherapy. On the other hand there are plenty of people who insist that only a strict vegan or macrobiotic or Gerson or other anti-cancer diet will help. And of course there are lots of books out there that advocate all kinds of diets, all of them claiming to be based on some sort of science. Those looking for a middle ground based on solid science are left trying to work out for themselves what makes sense and what is obvious nonsense.
Foods To Fight Cancer looks like lots of other books in the ‘superfoods’ genre. It’s glossy, well illustrated and published by Dorling Kindersly. It looks more coffee table than operating table. However, unlike many of the anti-cancer food books that are on the market this one is written by scientists working in the field of diet and cancer and who are not only up-to-date with the science but who are engaged in making it happen. It just so happens that Richard Beliveau and Denis Gingras are excellent communicators able to write for the non-scientist as well as their colleagues.
The central premise of the book is that dietary interventions can help tip the odds against developing cancer, and also to aid in fighting cancer once it has started. The plant kingdom contains thousands of phytochemicals – polyphenols, terpenes, sulphides etc – which have potent anti-cancer properties. These micro-nutrients act in multi-faceted ways to block many of the different biological pathways necessary for cancers to form, grow and then metastasize. Unlike some of the over-inflated claims made by some, there is no promise of a single all-powerful cancer cure here. Instead the emphasis is firmly on looking at what pathways are necessary for cancer to develop and then what can be done to block these using multiple compounds from different foods.
The starting point, and the first part of the book, is to understand the processes involved in carcinogenesis and the different phases of cancer growth: from initiation through to promotion and then progression. Keys elements include the role of inflammation, angiogenesis (tumours sprouting blood vessels) and modulation of immune response. The authors explain these elements in clearly accessible language but avoid the trap of talking down to the public in simplistic terms. Importantly, the authors make clear that prevention and therapy are part of the same fight. The same foods and phytochemicals that stop cancer formation are also useful in a therapeutic settings – these are foods that fight cancer at all stages.
Having explained the origins of cancer, part two of the book looks at nutraceuticals – the foods that are rich in the most potent of the anti-cancer phytochemicals. There are chapters on cruciferous vegetables, garlic and onions, soy, turmeric, green tea, berries, omega-3, tomatoes, citrus fruits, wine and grapes and chocolate. Each chapter lists the key phytochemicals, the best food sources and then details of how these compounds work. For example the chapter on turmeric looks at curcumin and discusses the different ways it fights cancer, at issues to do with bioavailability and how that can be enhanced and so on. For many people this is going to be a key part of the book – an information packed reference that you can dip into when required (as well as reading cover to cover).
The final part of the book looks at day to day nutritional therapy. It looks at the vexed question of supplements versus food sources, a key topic for many patients. The authors caution against the tendency to pop pills as an alternative to dietary changes. The talk about problems of quality, bioavailability and the fact that isolated agents sometimes do no work as well as they do when combined with companion compounds in food. However, some of these issues are being addressed by companies such as Verdure Sciences (nano-curcumin), or RevGenetics (enhanced bioavailable resveratrol) or ActivaMune (diindolylmethane and synergistic compounds from cruciferous vegetables).
The important point is well made, however: taking supplements should not be an alternative to changing to a diet that is rich in the right phytochemicals. It is also worth pointing out, as the authors do, that the organic versus conventionally farmed produce argument is beside the point – the evidence just isn’t there that organic is better when it comes to health.
Overall this is a hopeful and inspiring book. It makes no big promises, there is no magic cure that will stop cancer in its tracks. Instead there’s a strategy that attacks the multiple pathways cancer needs to survive, and does so using a variety of agents derived from common foods. This isn’t an alternative to conventional cancer treatments, it’s an additional weapon in the armoury. It is just a shame so many oncologists show no interest in this kind of approach. All the same, this is book that is very highly recommended to all.