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Cancer May Meet Its Match in Diet, Not Drugs

For decades, researchers have spent billions of dollars and countless hours searching for a cure for cancer. Cancer patients suffer through chemotherapy and radiation treatment, as family and friends alongside them experience emotional distress. The disease is the second leading cause of death in the United States and affects the lives of almost everyone in some way or another.

 Cancer is clearly a global issue, and people are passionate about finding a cure. But what if researchers have been focusing on the wrong methods and patients have endured unnecessary, ineffective forms of therapy, while a much simpler treatment is right under their nose?

Cancer has long been understood as a genetic disease, but Boston College biology professor Thomas Seyfried, alongside fellow researchers, argues that it is a metabolic disease, caused by damage to mitochondrial function. Seyfried is a leading advocate and contributor to the metabolic theory of cancer and wrote a book on the theory called Cancer as a Metabolic Disease.

The concept of cancer being a metabolic disease means that adjusting the energy fuels that go into the body by restricting one’s diet can inhibit cancer tumor growth. Cancer cells go through fermentation, which requires glucose and the amino acid glutamine. Seyfried’s research shows that by limiting the intake of these fuels, cancer patients can starve their tumors of the energy needed for fermentation, shrinking them without the help of other harmful therapies.

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The eating habits involved in the metabolic theory of cancer is known as a ketogenic diet. The diet includes foods that are low in sugar and high in fat, such as avocado, fish, bacon, nuts, butter, and more. Living on a ketogenic diet forces the body to burn fat for fuel rather than sugar from carbohydrates.

The metabolic theory of cancer, though supported by years of research done by Professor Seyfried and his peers and success stories in both humans and dogs, has been quite controversial and not easily accepted by the public.

Seyfried explains that this is because people’s view of cancer as a genetic disease, most often treated by radiation and chemotherapy, has become an ideology or a dogma. The scientific and medical communities are unwilling to stray because they are accustomed to the old conception and are skeptical of newer treatments.

“Until the ideology is changed, it’s not likely we will have major advancements in cancer,” says Seyfried, who believes that the years and years spent trying to find a cure for the supposed genetic disease will continue unless people are willing to change the way they think of cancer. Pharmaceutical industries also make huge amounts of money off of current drugs used to treat cancer as a genetic disease, so it’s difficult to get their support in seeing the disease in another, less-profitable way.

Seyfried says that the metabolic theory of cancer differs greatly from the genetic theory in terms of costs, harmfulness, and effectiveness. “If cancer is a metabolic disease, then the kinds of therapies are very much different—less toxic, more cost-effective, and more therapeutic than anything available today.” Current cancer therapies cost individuals huge amounts of money, while treating cancer as a metabolic disease by following a ketogenic diet would cost much less.

In addition, many cancer patients who go through radiation and chemotherapy experience health problems later in life, such as heart, lung, and hormone system problems. And comparing the deaths from cancer per year over the past few decades, the numbers have only increased, showing that traditional cancer treatments have overall been ineffective.

Another major difference between the two theories, explains Seyfried, is that the metabolic theory says that “Cancer is a singular disease, not a group of hundreds of different diseases.” The current genetic view considers cancer as a group of many different diseases which require different kinds of treatment, but using the metabolic theory, all forms of cancer would be treated in the same way.  Cancer would be seen as one type of disease that has the same cause every time.

Seyfried and his fellow researchers at BC have been studying cancer for years, and became more involved in studying the metabolic theory of cancer when they developed a tool to model the theory. They used dogs to test the ketogenic diet and its effects on cancerous tumors, and found the results to be successful. Even in a simple succession of photos, it’s clear that the dogs’ tumors shrunk significantly over time as they maintained their restricted diets.

Seyfried also believes that another problem with people being exposed to and accepting the metabolic theory is that patients have not rallied against the disease and possible new treatments, as sufferers of other diseases have done to bring about a cure.

For example, Seyfried says of AIDS, “The reason why finding an AIDS solution was so successful was because the gay community rallied around it.” Those suffering from AIDS, which included a significant amount of gay people, pushed for a cure, and researchers were eventually able to find a combination of drugs to help treat the disease.

There is still much progress to be made in terms of getting the word out about the concept of cancer as a metabolic disease and doing further research. Seyfried says, “It’s not perfect yet but it would only take 10 years to perfect it.” This of course would only happen if the public and other cancer researchers become open to the theory, which as of right now, has not happened.

NPR recently published an article on the topic called “Fighting Cancer by Putting Tumor Cells on a Diet” which brought about much controversy in the comments section; Seyfried says that it was the website’s most-discussed topic in the last month.

In addition to checking out Seyfried’s book, to learn more about the metabolic theory of cancer, Seyfried recommends Travis Christofferson’s Tripping Over the Truth as well as a large variety of books available about the ketogenic diet.