Sunday, March 21, 2010

The Cancer-Fighting Kitchen

On March 19th I spent the day in Santa Cruz at a life-altering workshop called The Cancer-Fighting Kitchen, put on by Healing Journeys (  I'd like to share a little of what I learned.

The two speakers were Jeanne Wallace, a nutritionist and Rebecca Katz, an author and chef.  They both believe in altering the body's environment to make it a place that cancer cells won't want to hang out in.  So in addition to chemotherapy, radiation and other things from the medical world, they add food science into the mix.  A lot of this I had already learned in Oct. '08 from my consultation at UCSF's Osher Center, but hearing it again with more current studies to support the theories has given me a big push to try to make some of these changes in my diet.

The first issue addressed by Jeanne is the most difficult one for me: Sugar.  I love it in all shapes and forms.  You could possibly even call it an addiction.   The studies show high blood glucose levels go hand in hand with poor survival rates in cancer patients.  Luckily, it's not really the sugar itself, but the spikes in blood sugar levels, so theoretically I can still eat small amounts high glycemic foods (candy, breads, fruit juice, corn, potatoes...) if I combine them with protein, healthy fats, and fiber.  A few things she recommends- do the A1c test which shows your blood sugar levels averaged over a few months, avoid deficiencies of Vitamin D and other nutrients and eat foods that can lower blood sugar such as cinnamon, blueberries, garlic, avocado, green tea... 

Next up was inflammation, along with another blood test to add to the list- the high sensitivity C Reactive Protein test.  Jeanne sited a few studies which show a correlation between high inflammation levels and low survival rates, then explained a few things we can do to help, like increasing our omega-3 and decreasing our omega-6 fats, avoiding blood sugar spikes, and reducing stress.  lists foods with their glycemic load and inflammation factor, a really good resource.  Foods that increase inflammation include corn-fed meats and dairy, sweets, and fried food, ones that decrease it include apples, carrots, leafy greens, olive oil, and dark chocolate.

The last area she covered was about the role of nutrition in the way genes are expressed, a field called Nutrigenomics.  This was a bit confusing, but the upshot is that eating certain foods such as cruciferous veggies, brazil nuts and flaxseed can shift the messages that genes send out, causing cancer cells to grow at a slower rate or even die.  Other foods, mostly spices, can be inhibitors of NF-kappa beta, something she calls "cancer's master switch."  It is activated by carcinogens, viruses, inflammation, chemotherapy and other things and can protect cancer cells from apoptosis (cell death) and promote angiogenesis (the growth of the small blood vessels that feed tumors.)  I am highly simplifying this, actually, butchering this, but I want to at least give the general idea.

Complementary to this fairly technical talk was Rebecca Katz's vibrant cooking demonstration.  Clearly this woman loves what she does!  She made a couple of recipes from her new book, "The Cancer-Fighting Kitchen, Nourishing, Big-Flavor Recipes for Cancer Treatment and Recovery" (  I think she should have added, "and Cancer Prevention".  The foods she used fit nicely into the categories we had just learned about from Jeanne, making the whole thing seem more doable in real life.

Here are some tidbits from the 2 hour Q&A we had after lunch:
-Keep meat portions small, around the size of a deck of cards.
-According to research by Charles B. Simone, anti-oxidants in your diet don't interfere with cancer treatment, reduce side effects and increase survival rates.
-Avoid highly processed soy products.
-We've been programmed since childhood to equate sweets with rewards for being good.  Reward yourself with a massage or other indulgence instead.
-Tomatoes have great cancer reducing qualities.  Plants in the nightshade family are only a problem if you are sensitive or allergic to them.
-Some vegetables are healthier when eaten cooked, not raw.
-Drinking a lot of alcohol can increase blood levels of estrogen.
-Supplements are ok, but nutrients from food is preferable. 
-Check your fish oil capsules, if they smell fishy they have oxidized.  Nordic Naturals is a reputable company selling fish oil capsules.
-Vitamin D is important for preventing and treating cancer.  It's anti-inflammatory and a blood sugar regulator among other things.   #25 Hydroxy Vitamin D3 test can check blood levels.  Doctors look for levels over 35, but Jeanne likes to see it more in the 60-80 range.  150 is a toxic level.
-Food allergy tests have many false positives and negatives.
-A low to normal thyroid level may be good for cancer patients.
-Some agave nectar may have been cut with high fructose corn syrup.  Also agave may be harder on the liver.
-Grade B maple syrup is higher in nutrients than Grade A.
-Conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) is hard to find in other places besides dairy.
-It might be wise for those with ovarian cancer to avoid dairy.  Something to do with IGF1.  To tell you the truth I was pretty overwhelmed by this point...

After the conference I sat in a local cafe sipping a cup of green tea, with the massive amount of information from the day swirling around my head, while the Archies "Sugar Sugar" played in the background.  The skeptic and sugar addict in me doesn't take anyone's word on any of these issues, but Jeanne did support what she presented with research and many studies.  And Rebecca's food was delicious.  So I'm making this a jumping off point to learn more and figure out what my path should be.  I do believe that nutrition plays a huge part in our well being and I am now inspired to take a much closer look.