Paying attention to inflammation, nutrition and the aerobic system is key to warding off this deadly and most-feared disease.

Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death worldwide, but cancer may be the most-feared chronic illness in developed countries because of its relatively slow and painful debilitating process.

My stance on cancer has always been that the best approach is prevention by maintaining a healthy and fit body. This advice also holds true for those who have been diagnosed and need cancer treatment.

Through the years, I’ve seen hundreds of cancer therapies come and go, both in mainstream medicine (usually radical ones that don’t address the cause) and alternative medicine (often bizarre and many not truly effective). But most are not complementary — where all approaches are considered in a process that individualizes one’s care. In other words, finding the remedies that match the patient’s particular needs is optimal. But certain basic, fundamental aspects of health and fitness must exist first, whether for prevention or part of a logical therapeutic approach to the problem of cancer.

An unhealthy body triggers various secondary imbalances that can ultimately lead to abnormal cell growth, resulting in a tumor, which can become malignant in any number of body areas (brain, breast, prostate, stomach, etc.). It often spreads by metastasis. The tumor itself and/or the metastatic consequences lead to a deterioration in quality of life, often treated by intense radical therapies with side-effects, and resulting either in what is called “remission” (not a cure) or a relatively slow death.

While a massive amount of money is regularly spent searching for a so-called “cancer cure,” which seems to be more about business and politics than health, we already have a consensus about the best remedy: prevention. A healthy body does not have a diagnosis of cancer.

Cancer Causes

Within us are genes for many types of cancer. Whether these genes are turned on (“expressed”) to cause disease — or not — is affected, in most cases, by our influence on them through lifestyle, especially diet, physical activity and stress. One important aspect of health that helps prevent and control cancer is a well-functioning biochemical body. Particularly important is the metabolism, especially good fat-burning that prevents excess body fat and weight, poor blood sugar control, hormone balance and an effective regulation of other physical, chemical and mental stress.

Various biochemical abnormalities are associated with poor health that could lead to the development of cancer — in particular, these are chronic inflammation, carbohydrate intolerance and aerobic deficiency. Herein lies a key component of true prevention, not just screening for disease after the fact. We control these factors by being both healthy and fit.

I’ve discussed both chronic inflammation and carbohydrate intolerance extensively in relation to cancer — that both conditions are very early manifestations of most chronic diseases. Aerobic deficiency, often discussed in relation to poor fitness, can also be a cancer-causing culprit because of its metabolic influences.

Fitness is not something most people think of when faced with preventing or treating cancer. But many traditional cancer prevention recommendations include the notion that exercise has a positive effect. However, rarely is exercise defined so that the average person knows how much duration and at what intensity is adequate but not too high.

The fact is, negative consequences of exercise can just as easily contribute to cancer. In particular, too much hard, high-intensity or anaerobic exercise can adversely affect the metabolism to encourage — or even become a potential trigger for — cancer.

Fortunately, our bodies come equipped with another component of fitness, which can also significantly improve health, helping protect us from cancer — the aerobic system.

A primary feature of the aerobic system is its fat-burning capability, which reduces reliance on sugar-burning. Sugar is the very fuel used by tumor cells. The process of converting fat to energy is essential for a healthy metabolism, and takes place in the slow-twitch muscle fibers, the aerobic muscle cell’s mitochondria.

Poor mitochondrial function and reduced fat-burning are associated with impaired health, with cancer patients generally having very poor aerobic systems (although aerobic deficiency is very common in the general population, even in those without cancer).

A tumor, or cancerous growth, is primarily made up of sugar-burning cells that also produce lactate. As part of complex metabolic mechanisms, increased lactate can reduce aerobic function and fat-burning, and increases oxidative stress, and is associated with:

  • Increased anaerobic activity.
  • Inflammation.
  • Increased sugar-burning.
  • Antioxidant reductions.
  • Reduced immune function.

In addition to this recipe for cancer, physical, chemical and mental stress can increase the hormone cortisol and sympathetic nervous system activity further impairing aerobic function. This maintains reduced fat-burning, increased sugar-burning, and poor mitochondrial and metabolic function — maintaining a viscous cycle even for patients in remission.

A healthy aerobic system — promoted with the combination of proper physical activity and healthy food, helps break this cycle.

Food and Cancer

Calorie restriction and fasting are two commonly employed cancer nutrition therapies that, over decades, have varying degrees of success. They have also been effective for:

  • Treatment of other chronic diseases.
  • Improving general health.
  • Positively influencing aging in part because of reduced oxidative stress.

The one biochemical feature common to calorie restriction and fasting is ketosis — the high use of ketone bodies and fats for bodywide energy instead of sugar-burning.

But calorie restriction or fasting excessively while trying to live healthy and productive lives is not practical or necessary because it can lead to nutrient deficiencies and starvation. We can, however, prompt our bodies to burn more fat, to make more ketones, reduce reliance on sugar-burning, and lower our caloric requirement as metabolism becomes more efficient.

Most sugar-dependent cancer cells are unable to use ketones for energy like healthy cells can. Ketone bodies may even be toxic to cancer cells. A number of studies show that the change from sugar- to fat/ketone-burning results in three key anti-cancer actions:

  • Anti-angiogenic (anti-tumor forming).
  • Anti-inflammatory.
  • Pro-apoptotic (cancer cell destruction).

From a dietary standpoint, increasing fat burning is accomplished by reducing carbohydrate intake, and increasing healthy fat consumption, while maintaining adequate high-quality protein intake. The exercise aspect of this means building the aerobic system. We need not necessarily have to go into nutritional ketosis, although some people are healthier doing so, and as an effective cancer therapy it is becoming more popular.

Of the other potentially useful cancer treatments, both medical and alternative, they tend to work best in a body with a better, healthier biochemistry, rather than be a replacement for it. Most of these remedies won’t create a healthier metabolism because some unhealthy lifestyle component overrides the therapeutic effect. For example, alkalizing the body with very expensive dietary supplements won’t work well if a person is eating a lot of carbohydrates (which strongly acidifies the body). Focusing on primary health benefits, which don’t cost any more than real food, as discussed here and elsewhere on philmaffetone.com, should be a primary focus.

As such, the approach to both preventing and treating cancer can be very similar. And, considering that the process of cancer development may be common in all of us, it pays to be healthy and fit first.

10 Comments

  • Bob says:

    What diet would you recommend for someone that was newly diagnosed with cancer in their 60’s? Would the Whal’s Protocol Phase 3 be the best?

    • Bob:

      We can’t answer those kinds of medical questions on the site. They pertain to your personal situation, and any answer is contingent on information we do not have. Your doctor has the prerogative on answering medical questions.

  • Dr Scott Einhorn says:

    I have been learning with and from Dr Maffetone, literally for decades. My only complaint re this article, is that from the lay POV, the terms stress and cortisol get used w/o enough explanation. While cortisol is a most necessary compound, in excess it has negative consequences in practically all body systems. The adrenal hormone cortisol, when let loose and poorly controlled through our/your system, is a most potent ‘stress’ harbinger. By all universally accepted science/medical definitions, it is usually #1 with a bullet, re the cause of, subsequent control of – stress. How you control it, well, that’s your business. There’s a million stories in the Naked City. Whatever floats your boat.
    As always, kudos and a hearty Well Met, to Phil,

  • Matt Kelsall says:

    Fantastic article, this should printed in every mainstream magazine and medical journal. Health has become big business and I wonder if people will ever see through the greed and politics. There is so much emphasis on treating the symptoms instead of the cause, I guess that’s how the make there money.

  • Colin says:

    Great stuff, I have a question about alkalizing the system. I have heard two points of view. One, the system needs help, and we could supplement with things like lemon juice, vinegar, or baking soda. The other perspective is that the body naturally maintains homeostasis and measuring urine pH and supplementing is a waste of time. Does Dr. Maffetone have an opinion on supplementing?

    • Colin:

      I would not characterize these as two competing points of view. “The system” is quite capable of balancing its own pH within reason. The problem is that for a wide majority, the system is either (a) impaired, or (b) constantly beset by factors acidifying it to the extent that it cannot balance its own pH.

      For example, the lungs are extremely powerful alkalinizing engines. In fact, they are so powerful that altitude sickness is essentially a problem of over-alkalinization. By attempting to breathe in more O2 when there is very little, the body is expelling huge amounts of CO2 (a.k.a. carbonic acid). It’s not “a point of view” that the body can’t balance its own pH itself—the kidneys, for example, are also powerful alkalinizing engines, by expelling uric acid and lactate (to nae two) from the body.

      That said, the body also expects that an important amount of foods be alkaline, to ease its own burdens. In your typical modern diet, where 99% of foods are acidic (and the air in cities is more acidic than it should be), you bet that the body’s well-established and pre-existing pH balancing systems will need “supplementing” to help it balance itself. But the real solution is to simply remove (or reduce) the onslaught of acidifying factors that the modern Western physiology experiences every day.

  • Rebecca says:

    Excellent post. This is exactly what I see in clinical practice, in particular, in relation to breast cancer.

  • tw says:

    Having been through this myself (Hodgkin’s Lymphoma) I concur with much of what was written here. Fitness is important in case you find yourself in an adverse situation like this. Maintaining as much fitness as you can when going through treatment is a good strategy paying big dividends when you recover.

    How to train remains unclear to me although my approach was shorter and slightly more anaerobic working around variable energy levels. It included some circuit training and the rowing ergometer. It worked well through the treatment period although I think the MAF approach would probably have been better as I began recovery.

    I went in fit, trained and prepared. During Treatment I worked hard “to get worse” due to the debilitating impact of the drugs, but coming out the other side was able to gain extra capacity relieved of the burden of disease and attempting to keep my fitness up during those few months.

    I agree with much of the dietary advice as well. Much less carbohydrate (low to moderate), no grain, vegetable oil and extraneous sugar. Without all of this interference, following your bodys cravings (signals) becomes easy. I did not fast or go calorie restricted although bacon and eggs, eggs and some nuts on treatment day seemed to get it done (sort of ketogenic/restricted) In other words the dietary advice for athletes on this site would in my opinion be equally good for a patient.

    This is of course all very personal. However I think that when going through cancer treatment, the part the patient does for themselves can draw a great deal from sport, in particular sports that place significant demands on the body like those of the endurance variety.

    Eating properly and training through treatment just like an athlete in my opinion is the single best thing any patient can do. I think there is a great deal on this site that would be a benefit to anyone in this situation.

    Thanks Phil and Ivan. So much great info here.

  • Melanie says:

    An awesome article. Thank you 🙂

  • Mark says:

    It’s interesting to note that sugary meal replacement drinks, I’ll be sure not to mention any brand names, are prescribed for cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy. At least, this was the case with my mom. It unfortunately didn’t end well but I’m sure there were several more important factors that led to the disease as mentioned in this article. I would imagine the whole demonization of dietary fat, and low/no fat (sugar laden) products played their role as did other behavioral factors. Of course, as mentioned in the article, cancer is big business with all that comes with it. Anyway, great article but perhaps “viscous cycle” should be changed to “vicious cycle.”

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