Irish cancer patients are turning to 'cult-like diets' without asking their doctors
Unscientific diets for fighting cancer may be well-intentioned, say real medical experts, but their unproven claims do more harm to already vulnerable patients
Christmas is fast approaching, and with it comes the usual deluge of celebrity cookbooks. But while most of us enjoy trying our hands at recipes, medical experts are worried that some of the latest dietary trends could be damaging to people with a life-threatening illness.
Dr Robert O’Connor is the head of research at the Irish Cancer Society. He says while gifts of clean-eating cookbooks are very well-intentioned, they can have the opposite effect.
“Knowing that a family member, friend or colleague is coping with cancer often leaves us struggling to find a way to show our concern and support,” he says. “But some of those promoting new diets try to undermine the public view of the skills of the talented doctors, nurses, dietitians and other healthcare providers treating cancer.
“The authors seek to build their influence by claims that they, as celebrities or recovered patients, know more than those who are experts in the field — this is akin to a passenger in a plane claiming that they can fly the plane better than the trained pilot at the controls.
“Professional dietitians and oncologists spend many years learning all the latest evidence about how best to keep cancer patients well and make them better, and are quick to adopt the latest improvements.
“Patients need to trust this expertise and not be swayed by people who might mean well but simply do not understand the complexities of diseases they talk about,” he says.
Dr O’Connor says cancer causes changes to a patient’s metabolism, so informed nutritional choices and advice from experts is essential.
“Treatments are good at hitting the cancer itself but, to be effective, patients must look after the nutritional needs of the rest of their body,” he says.
“Cancer represents a large collection of different diseases, types and stages. So the answers for any one patient cannot be described in a single book or article from the internet, they need a much more personalised approach that only a skilled expert can provide.
“Claims of impact by clean eating are typically anecdotal, not from research conducted by experts. Instead, the claims are based on isolated, early stage, often lab-based investigations or from diseases outside of cancer — so the evidence simply does not meet any accepted standard appropriate to the complexities of real cancer treatment in human beings.”
Eileen O’Sullivan was diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer in January 2013. The Dublin woman underwent treatment and has been cancer-free for the past three years.
While undergoing chemotherapy, she was showered with well-meaning dietary advice and discovered a huge amount of ‘misinformation’ aimed at vulnerable cancer patients.
“I was inundated with presents of books, DVDs and internet links on the topic (relating to cancer),” she says. “I discovered that it’s a big industry with so-called ‘cures’ that the medical profession is apparently ‘hiding’ from us all.
“I read book after book and suffice to say, one wouldn’t need to be a genius to work out that much of it is pure nonsense.
“At the oncology day ward, I was astonished at how many alternative diets, supplements or therapies the other patients were trying without asking their medical teams’ opinions — which resulted in medical difficulty for some.”
Eileen decided to focus on advice given by her medical team.
“There are cult-like movements on social media promoting specific diets aimed at cancer patients and in many cases, those promoting their diets, selling their books or giving advice, do not have the experience or requisite qualifications to be making any nutritional recommendations,” she says.
“A major bugbear for me is that one of the marketing strategies of these alternative diet promoters is that they aim to put doubt into the minds of their patients concerning the advice of their cancer specialist team. This is absolutely wrong, irresponsible and self-serving. I can’t explain how important it is to a cancer patient to have trust in their medical team.”
Fiona Roulston is a member of the Irish Nutrition and Dietetic Institute (INDI). She says good nutrition is vital for cancer patients as it can help them to tolerate their treatment, improve their responses and make them feel better overall — so it is important to steer clear of unqualified advice.
“With so much conflicting information in the media and on the internet, it is confusing and overwhelming for cancer patients at an already stressful time,” she says.
“I can understand why patients would want to try a diet which makes such strong claims. However, these diets are often not based on enough good quality evidence and are not recommended by cancer professionals.
“They tend be very restrictive, cutting out large food groups such as dairy or carbohydrates, and unnecessary diet restrictions are not recommended during cancer treatment. Fad diets also often come with recommendations to take various high-dose vitamin or herbal supplements, which may interact with cancer therapies.
“I would encourage patients to talk to their doctor or dietitian if they are thinking of trying out a new ‘cancer diet’.”
The experienced dietitian says unintentional weight loss and malnutrition are common problems for cancer patients and these issues can only be combated by following expert advice.
“Weight loss can be caused by cancer itself or can be a result of side effects of treatments such as nausea, pain when swallowing, taste changes or altered bowel habit,” she says.
“Research has shown that loss of weight and muscle can result in poorer tolerance to treatments and reduced overall survival — and this can be true even when a person is overweight or obese to begin with.
“So, patients who experience weight loss due to cancer or cancer treatments should follow a high-protein, high-calorie diet to minimise muscle loss and meet their energy needs. This can involve eating small regular meals, nourishing drinks and adding extra calories and protein to foods.
“However, there is no one size fits all. Different cancers can have different effects, so all patients should be seen by a registered oncology dietitian for help with side effects of treatment and dietary advice that is tailored to their own individual needs,” she adds.
÷ Free recipes for cancer patients downloaded from breakthroughcancerresearch.ie