The answer: Yes – but even the most devoted vegans must be prepared to significantly alter their lifestyle.
The experts: Debbie Farrell is a two-time cancer survivor. As part of her treatment program, she follows a strict vegan diet, one she will remain on for the rest of her life.
Shani Fox, ND, specializes in treating cancer patients. While Fox did not treat Farrell, she believes there are strong benefits to following a plant-based diet during cancer treatment.
Four years ago, Debbie Farrell, 54, was diagnosed with fallopian tube cancer. Surgery was successful, and chemotherapy was recommended. However, Farrell chose not to undergo chemotherapy and instead opted for a vegan diet consisting of carrot juice and a product called Barley Green. This is all Farrell ate for the next six months. After that, she followed the completely vegan Halleluiah diet: 85% raw food, 15% cooked.
Farrell says, “Unfortunately, after a couple of years, we got off track and went back to the standard American diet. I believe this was the cause of the return of my cancer” in April 2010.
While Fox is not aware of any definitive studies proving that a vegan diet prevents certain kinds of cancer, there are studies that show hormonal cancers, like breast and prostate, can be linked to animal-based diets. “Antibiotics can be powerful drivers of hormonal cancers,” she says.
Because vegans avoid animal products, they are less exposed to antibiotics, which may prove beneficial in terms of long-term health. “You can find studies of the harmful effects of animal products. You can derive that avoidance leads to a better position,” Fox adds.
What is true of any cancer treatment: Nutrition is critical. And reducing inflammation is key, Fox says.
“The most important role when fighting cancer is to keep inflammation down.” One cause of inflammation is an animal-based diet that includes meat, dairy, and eggs. Eliminating these foods “is an advantage for a vegan diet,” Fox says.
Farrell’s Cancer Returns
Last spring, following an abnormal blood test, a PET scan revealed a half-dollar sized tumor between Farrell’s spine and rectum. She was told by her oncologist the cancer was “treatable but not curable.” Not willing to accept this diagnosis, Farrell chose a homeopathic doctor in Carson City, Nev. who practices a form of treatment called IPT: Insulin Potentiation Therapy.
Along with IPT, Farrell followed an extremely strict, all-organic vegan diet from the book Healing the Gerson Way.
Her diet, then and now, consists of oatmeal and raisins for breakfast and a salad and soup for lunch and dinner. Farrell prepares the soup with potatoes, tomatoes, leeks, onions, and distilled water.
Juicing is also a main component of the diet. The book identifies this “as being your medicine,” Farrell explains.
Although the book advises 13 8 oz. servings per day, Farrell’s protocol has been modified to eight. She begins with orange juice in the morning, then consumes five servings of a carrot- apple juice combo throughout the day. She also drinks a green juice twice daily. Farrell’s recipe includes raw ingredients such as beet leaves, red leaf lettuce, Swiss chard, red cabbage and one apple.
Farrell once asked her doctor how long she had to follow this diet. His response: “You will never eat like your neighbor again.”
The monotony is worth it to her: Four weeks after beginning treatment for her second bout of cancer, Farrell is again in remission. She is convinced that the IPT, plus the vegan diet, has saved her life.
Cancer and the vegan diet: More than raw vegetables
Fox says the main concern with following a vegan diet during cancer treatment is ensuring the patient is getting enough digestible protein. This is important because many factors in cancer treatment cause the breakdown of tissue. Protein is necessary to tissue repair.
During treatment, “It is possible to be vegan and consume enough protein, but it is more challenging without animal products. There could be a place where a vegan diet is outweighed by the need for protein,” Fox explains, but this would be carefully planned with the patient in order to “stay with their ethical concerns as to why they are vegan in the first place.”