If you are planning to undergo cancer treatments such as chemotherapy and radiation, you might be faced with an additional concern. “How do I keep my own cells healthy in the face of some very necessary treatments that are designed to damage and kill cancer cells?” Natural medicine has some of the best approaches to improving and maintaining your health when receiving treatment for cancer.
We invite you to learn more about our collaborative naturopathic oncology model at Heart Spring Health in Portland We work together to enhance each patient’s physical, mental, and spiritual health. When you visit our office, you won’t feel labeled by your diagnosis. This article, authored by several members of our team, will walk you through how we can support you during all stages of cancer treatment.
Understanding the Goals & Effects of Chemotherapy
Chemotherapy targets and attempts to kill fast-growing cells in the body by use of chemical substances. Cancer cells are fast-growing cells, which is why chemotherapy is effective at killing cancer. However, there are other cells that are-fast growing in the body. Among them are:
- bone marrow
- various cells of the digestive tract
The most common side effects of chemotherapy are due to the loss of these fast-growing, endemic cells. They include:
- anemia (fatigue)
- hair loss
- mouth sores
These short-term side effects often subside once the treatment is stopped.
There are longer-term side effects that do not necessarily subside on their own, such as heart problems, lung damage, nerve damage, and secondary cancer. In many cases, these side effects are preventable using naturopathic techniques.
When you see a naturopathic physician who focuses on cancer care, they are aware of which systems and cells need to be protected and how to help protect them without interfering with the treatment of the cancer itself. This is why it is called complementary medicine. In this case, two systems of medicine are working together to do what they do best so that you can live a life that is fulfilling and vibrant.
What treatments are supportive during chemotherapy while also protecting the healthy cells of the body?
Fasting has been studied for a number of health conditions and cancer is one of them. Notably, fasting while receiving chemotherapy appears to protect many cell lines, reducing side effects of the chemotherapy in cancer patients (2).
Additionally, fasting appears to have an even more favorable effect than merely reducing side effects. Fasting can prevent cancer growth. The phenomenon that attributes benefit to this outcome is called the differential stress resistance (DSR) . It works because, during fasting, the healthy cells of the body “switch off signals for growth and reproduction and enter a “protective” mode,” making them more resistant to damage from chemotherapy. Mutated cancer cells, however, have lost the capacity to enter this mode, and are no more protected against stressors while fasting than otherwise. This provides the perfect opportunity for chemotherapy to be incredibly effective against the cancer while protecting the health of the other fast-growing cells that have normal function.
How does it work?
This is a complex process but I’ll try to make it simple.
Autophagy is a process of “self-eating” adopted as a protective mechanism by cells when they are under stress or “starvation” (fasting) in order to maintain cellular homeostasis and reduce metabolic stress. Cellular homeostasis is the tendency of a cell to regulate the chemical processes that take place internally so as to maintain healthy functioning, regardless of outside conditions. During autophagy, in order to maintain homeostasis, the cell lysozymes break down proteins and organelles. Autophagy targets and degrades damaged organelles, cell membranes and proteins and is known as a “repair mechanism” for the body. So, fasting not only protects cells, it may repair damaged ones, and in so doing, be supportive for many issues related to aging and chronic disease.
In cancer cells, because they prefer to proliferate (grow and multiply), they actually lose the protective benefits of autophagy (1). Cancer cell mutations allow cancer cells to grow without the normal control signals that other cells get. So, cancer cells are not sensitized to respond to conditions of stress. They just can’t do it, which becomes beneficial for treatment. As a result, in the presence of metabolic stressors, cancer cells continue to proliferate and reveal a key vulnerability we can take advantage of.
When fasting, the body produces ketone bodies as its major source of fuel. To our advantage, cancer cannot utilize ketone bodies for fuel. Cancer cells rely on glucose for fuel; a lot of it. During fasting, there is no food being consumed and therefore, very little to no glucose in the bloodstream. The absence of glucose to feed the cancer cells makes the cancer cells more susceptible to stress. This may induce apoptosis (programmed cell death) in cancer cells, enhancing the effect of chemotherapy. It has been noted that DNA damage to some cancer cells was greater with fasting alone than with chemotherapy alone (1). However, fasting in combination with chemotherapy has been shown to be more effective overall.
Is fasting recommended for all cancer patients?
No, there are risks to fasting that should be discussed with your doctor. Some examples where fasting would not be recommended include:
- People with low Body Mass Index (BMI).
- People who don’t have metabolic enzymes necessary to divert to alternative metabolic pathways necessary during fasting states.
- Some people, as well as some cancers, may respond better to other types of natural treatments.
Is fasting safe for patients with cancer?
Generally speaking, yes, it has been shown to be safe when under the care of a physician and when the patient meets certain criteria. However, there are situations where fasting is not recommended and alternative approaches can be discussed. Some examples are:
- Someone who has already lost more than 10% of their body weight due to cancer.
- Someone who needs medications other than chemotherapy.
- It may not be recommended for patients with certain additional health issues.
Does fasting treat cancer?
Yes, it has the potential to make chemotherapy more potently focused on cancer cells and less on other healthy cell lines.
Additionally, fasting itself has the potential to decrease cancer progression on its own (3).
When is fasting indicated for cancer patients?
During chemotherapy (4) and during early stages of cancer. In later stages of cancer it theoretically could be useful against the cancer; but the risks to muscle and vital organs are too great for it to be routinely recommended. There are better options in situations like this.
What kinds of cancer is fasting recommended for?
Breast, colon, and ovarian cancers have all shown to receive benefit from fasting treatment. It may be helpful in many other cancers but they have not been formally studied.
How long should I fast?
You and your doctor will determine this together, taking into account multiple factors. The length of time is largely determined by things like your constitution, type of cancer, the extent of cancer, and the treatment that you will be undergoing. It is not uncommon for patients to be fasted during chemotherapy for up to 8 days. As a general rule, in order to get the benefits of fasting it is begun before chemotherapy (3 days prior) and continued for a couple of days following chemotherapy.
Can I supplement amino acids and other supplements while I’m fasting?
No, while it is very tempting to think that this might be beneficial, at this point we do not have any research that supports this. In fact, research shows that restricting other forms of nutrients, both glucose and proteins or amino acids, is the best way to achieve the beneficial effects of fasting (5) (6) (7) (8) (9). To introduce any nutrients besides water into your system, could jeopardize the protective and regenerative metabolic mechanisms that fasting is promoting.
Dr. Serron Wilkie, Naturopathic Doctor and Acupuncturist, provides the full spectrum of care for a wide range of health concerns, including a focus on integrative oncology. She helps her patients restore a sense of ease, harmony and joy in their lives by creating optimal health and sustainable wellness. Patients who have not been helped by other conventional or alternative treatments often seek out Serron for deep healing.