Cancer & Nutrition: Two Perspectives
Cancer is a disease that will touch most people in one way or another over the course of their lifetime. While this disease is one that crosses over cultural, social and economic barriers, it is not viewed in the same way through all medical disciplines. Western medicine prides itself on scientific principles to diagnose and treat disease with the emphasis being on suppression of symptoms with medical treatments and prescriptions. Ayurveda, an ancient Indian practice which literally means “the science of life”, focuses on prevention with the emphasis in bringing the body and mind to balance.
Cancer is a disease of abnormal cellular growth; Cancer cells are fast-growing, irregular cells that are very different from normal cells. Cancer cells grow uncontrollably and will pile upon one another in a manner analogous to formation of a tumor. Cancer cells can grow independent of hormones and growth factors that other cells require. Cancer cells also continue to replicate far past the normal replication cycle of a cell which is around 50 divisions. Cancer cells may also look different from “normal” cells in their size and shape which helps doctors to identify cancer types. As cells continue to replicate uncontrollably, mutations develop. The most harmful changes result in complete loss of growth control, this leads to the cancer cells spreading resulting in damage to other parts of the body. Cancer cells may also break loose from the tumor and travel through the lymphatic and circulatory system, this is called metastasis. In fact, in advance stages of cancer, a patient may have dozens or hundreds of tumors that all developed from a single tumor cell. (Hosick, 2010).
The American Cancer Society suggests that two-thirds of all cancers in the United States are caused by two factors, inhaled smoke and ingested food. The majority of causes of cancer can be attributed to lifestyle choices. A healthy diet and regular exercise are the best forms of prevention. The treatment of cancer in the West has four major areas: surgery, radiation, chemotherapy and bone marrow transplant. These treatments often result in toxic tissue effects with damage to cell DNA structure and changes in body function. Nutritional support is needed to help alleviate potential problems and enhance the success of the chosen cancer therapy. The healing process requires optimal nutritional intake to support: cell function and structure of all of it’s’ parts including DNA, RNA, amino acids, and proteins as well as the integrity of all the immune system components. When surgery is the treatment decided upon, optimal nutritional status pre-operatively and nutritional support post-operatively are integral to the healing process. Radiation is often used in treatment of two types of tumors, those responsive to radiation within a dose level tolerable to health of normal tissue and those that can be targeted without damage to the overlying organ tissue. With radiation treatment patients may lose the sense of smell, be plagued with nausea, or be faced with mal-absorption issues, which all need to be addressed with nutritional support. Chemotherapy is a cancer treatment that is delivered intravenously and therefore its effects can be felt throughout the body. The chemotherapeutic agents in chemotherapy have the same effects on rapidly reproducing normal cells as they do on the cancer cells, this may lead to toxic side effects and problems maintaining the nutritional needs of the body. The bone marrow may be affected by chemotherapy in it’s’ ability to produce red blood cells, white blood cells as well as platelets. In this case a neutropenic diet may be recommended, this diet eliminates potentially microbial contaminated foods, such as raw, unwashed vegetables. (Schlenker & Roth, 2011).
The nutritional needs of the cancer patient are of utmost importance. The demands for energy from the cancer patient are great, these demands result from a hyper metabolic state that some patients have as well as from tissue-healing requirements. A malnourished patient may require more calories but overfeeding must be avoided in order to avoid “ re-feeding syndrome” in which severe intracellular electrolyte and fluid shifts may occur. A malnourished cancer patient may require up to two times more protein than an average adult in order to replenish tissue and restore the nitrogen balance. Increased daily intake of fruits and vegetables is also recommended to ensure adequate supplies of vitamins and minerals needed by the body. Water is an important part of any diet but especially so in that of the cancer patient. Water is needed to replace reserves depleted by infection and fever and it is also used in the kidneys to help eliminate metabolic breakdown products from destroyed cancer cells, and toxic drugs used in treatment. Herbal and alternative treatments must be reviewed on a case-by-case basis so the patient is aware of the severity and probable results of the desire alternative treatment since often such treatments have not been scientifically proven effective. (Schlenker & Roth, 2011).
Ayurveda or the “science of life” is an ancient system of healing from India. Ayurveda employs a holistic approach to health and disease and uses medicines derived from plants and minerals. It is an Ayurvedic philosophy that everything in the universe is medicine. Ayurveda strives to maintain the delicate balance between bio physiological forces (dosha) and constitution (prakriti) which determines one’s health or disease, other factors such as mind and metabolism also influence the state of health or disease. (Chopra et al., 2010).
In Ayurveda, cancer is seen as an impurity of the blood (rakta dhatu). Rakta dhatu provides life function and gives oxygen to every cell, a function of prana (life force). According to Ayurveda the causes of cancer are: improper karma-deeds, improper cell division, improper food combining, smoke (direct or indirect), and alcohol in abnormal quantities, pollution, viruses, or genetic factors. Cancer can be found anywhere in the body where toxins (ama) get accumulated. The accumulated toxins take the form of a tumor or an ulcer, which continues to grow. The liver is responsible for the removal of toxins from the body and if it is not functioning properly the toxins accumulate and form a cancerous growth. If one has an imbalance of sodium and potassium in the body, it produces cancer. Furthermore, when one has repeated growth of a tumor or a dosha that is aggravated for a long time, cancer may develop. (DARF, 2011).
Ayurvedic treatments of cancer have similar philosophies as their Western counterparts but the actual treatments vary greatly. Giving the patient radiation in Ayurvedic terms means, the tumor is applied with medicated oils and an ointment which is then covered with a metal plate made of different metals including, gold, silver or copper. The metal plates when applied on the tumor are heated they produce radiation which will kill the cancerous cells. Oils that are heated and pre-medicated and are poured on the tumor are radiation, as is medicines in the form of a paste that is bandaged and then heated. Another Ayurvedic treatment that could be compared to surgery is Sushrut, in this treatment, maggots are allowed to eat away the cancerous cells and then through herbal medicines the tumor is naturally healed. Ayurvedic cancer treatment is free from side effects and uses food as part of the treatment.
The nutrition recommendations for cancer in Ayurveda will vary depending on one’s dosha and constitution. General recommendations are to consume more cow ghee, consume goat milk, use sesame oil as a cooking medium, eat sprouted beans, soups of vegetables, nuts, raisins and figs, consume more fresh seasonal fruit juice as well as an herbal juice therapy designed to control cancerous growth. Specific cancers may need specific diets, such as, those with liver cancer should eat a fat free diet, and no salt should be consumed by those with renal cancer and a non-spiced diet with GI cancers. Foods that should be avoided by those with cancer include deep-fried food, junk or fast food, tin-packed foods, spicy foods or foods that aggravate vitta dosha. (DARF, 2011).
Ayurveda also recommends lifestyle changes to the cancer patient. Eating habits that should be avoided include, overeating or eating soon after a full meal, excess water while eating, drinking iced drinks or chilled water during a meal, eating when constipated, eating incompatible food combinations. Drugs and alcohol should be completely avoided as well. One should exercise in harmony with ones’ doshic constitution, with walking and swimming being good for all doshas. One must also strive to live a life of balance. One must pay attention to one’s thoughts and emotions, and strive to create more positive thoughts and emotions, if a person fails to do this, the negative emotions will eat into the physical and emotional well-being. Meditation is also an integral part to living in balance. Meditation is the art of being in the moment and this moment to moment awareness brings a cleansing to the body, mind and consciousness. Life becomes a spontaneous phenomenon and not a burden. (DARF, 2011).
Cancer has become a problem in every society throughout the world. While Western medicine believes it has science on its side, the success rate of Western treatments is not great and often the patient feels worse after treatment than before. Western cancer treatments are very invasive and often do not address the behavior that led to the disease in the first place. Ayurveda, like other holistic disciplines, takes the whole person approach and requires the patient play an integral role in their treatment. Living a life of balance is important in avoiding cancer and other diseases. Ayurveda’s approach to cancer seems to be less detrimental on the health of the patient, and teaches the patient how to live in order to have optimal health not just the lack of disease.
If you would like to learn more about the approach Ayurveda takes toward the treatment of cancer, you can read an elaborated explanation by Dr. Marc Halpern, here.
Chopra, A., Saluja, M., Tillu, Girish. (2010). Ayurveda-modern medicine interface: A critical appraisal of studies of Ayurvedic medicines to treat Osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. Journal of Ayurveda and Integrative Medicine. Retrieved Nov. 8, 2001 from ProQuest. (Document ID: 866306374).
Divyajot Ayurvedic Research Foundation (DARF). (2011). “About Cancer”. Retrieved Nov. 15, 2011 from Ayurveda-cancer.org/cancer.htm
Hosick, H. (2010). “Cancer.” Magill’s Medical Guide, Sixth Edition. ED. Tracy Irons-Georges, 6th ed. 6 vols. Pasadena, CA: Salem Press, 2010. Retrieved Nov, 8, 2011 from Salem Health Web.
Lad, V. (2002). Textbook of Ayurveda: Fundamental Principles Volume 1. Albuquerque, NM: The Ayurvedic Press, 2002.
Schlenker, E., Roth, S. (2010). Williams’ Essentials of Nutrition and Diet Therapy, Tenth Edition. Ed. Yvonne Alexopoulos, 10th ed. St. Louis, MS: Elsevier Mosby, 2010.
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