Choosing a diet for cancer is understandable, but preying on the vulnerable is not

When I tell someone, ‘you have cancer’, I know that will change someone’s life irrevocably. Cancer will touch the lives of many of us, and in that moment there’s probably not much we wouldn’t do.

Recently, there seems to be an explosion of people seeking cancer treatments outside of the traditional wares of a hospital. Many cancer centres now offer yoga, massage or acupuncture to round out the medical treatment.  Research has estimated that between 48 and 88 per cent of people with cancer use complementary therapy. 

This is the start of something more insidious emerging. There is an ever-growing number of books, influencers and self-proclaimed experts claiming to make you ‘cancer free’ with just the food you eat. 

Diets promising to improve health are becoming common and an integral part of the complementary therapy/anti-medicine crusade. There are dozens of books claiming to be ‘anti-cancer’, ‘the only answer to cancer’ or promising to fight cancer with smoothies or ‘instinct based medicine’. On Amazon, bestselling books on cancer are largely diets to beat cancer.

Cancer is complex collection of hundreds of illnesses, which can vary widely from one person to another and generally result from a combination of our genes and a wide variety of things we’re exposed to in our life. There is some link between diet and cancer. A diet rich in fruit, vegetables and wholegrains does seem to prevent some cancer, and bowel cancer is an example of where a diet-cancer link is strong. This kind of diet can decrease breast and bowel cancer by as much 60—70%. 

When it comes to actually treating cancer, the scientific evidence falls away. Despite promises of various components in foods to fight cancer, none have come to fruition. Despite this, 30-60% of breast cancer patients change their diet to include less fat, sugar and meat, obviously not necessarily a bad thing. Many others choose to have vitamins or other supplements, some under the belief that it will cure them. Some decline medical therapy instead of this altogether.

The stories of people who have ‘beaten’ cancer with diet are dramatic. Some claim to have had late stage cancer which ‘melted away’ by following an anti-cancer diet. This is at best, a form of confirmation bias; many of these people are undergoing proven medical treatment but any success is attributed to the diet, not the cutting-edge therapy that is available for many types of cancers nowadays. At worst, these stories may be completely false.

 

We are beginning to understand just how deadly using complementary therapies in cancer can be. Research published in JAMA Oncology in 2018 showed that the more someone used complementary therapies for cancer, the less they agreed to take usual treatment such as chemotherapy. This translated into loss of life; overall, those who eschewed conventional therapy were twice as likely to die of their disease. 

 

In the ultimate cautionary tale, disgraced Australian wellness entrepreneur Belle Gibson built an empire when she claimed to have cured her brain cancer through diet. She parlayed this successful Instagram account into an app by Apple to launch the Apple Watch and a now-defunct cookbook called ‘The Whole Pantry’. When Gibson was uncovered as a fraud with no cancer to speak of, her empire crumbled, taking down with it her publisher who failed to do their due diligence and confirm her story. She was convicted of fraud for withholding charity contributions and to this day, still has not paid a cent of her reparations. 

At the same time, self-styled ‘wellness warrior’ Jess AInsclough also declined medical therapy for her cancer, opting for diet instead. Reportedly, in the terminal stage of her disease, Ainsclough accepted radiotherapy but by then it was too late and she died at age 30.

The worst part about Gibson’s story is the many people who put their faith in her. Stories of people who followed the Gibson’s of the world and turned their backs on chemotherapy pop up in the media from time to time. By following these charlatans, people quite literally put their lives at risk.

Belle Gibson was ousted as a fraud and was fined by a Victorian court although she is yet to pay any, according to media reports. (Credit: Australian Women’s Weekly)

Belle Gibson was ousted as a fraud and was fined by a Victorian court although she is yet to pay any, according to media reports. (Credit: Australian Women’s Weekly)

Unhappily, these stories have not turned people away from their pursuit of diet to cure cancer. Where Gibson once stood, many others follow. Some are even physicians, operating outside of the accepted science that governs their profession, playing an incredibly dangerous game by giving their erroneous claims substance, hiding behind their ‘MD’.

 

Ireland tabled a bill in parliament in 2018 to enable those who peddle ineffective and dangerous treatments for cancer punished. And it is this kind of hard-line approach that may well be needed to stop vulnerable patients and their families being exploited by people who in essence, are dangerous. 

Pursuit of complementary therapy in cancer treatment is perfectly understandable. It is vital to enable the person’s active role and autonomy in their treatment and complementary therapy or diet is one way to do that. At the same time, patients with cancer are vulnerable and those who are selling books or diets off the back of that vulnerability exploit this either knowingly or otherwise. For social media, publishers and the mass media, we must stop giving air time to people who are praying on the vulnerable in their most desperate hour. People with cancer deserve our support, not to be victimised by quacks. 

Donelly & Toscano’s book ‘The Woman Who Fooled the World’ is a disturbing but necessary read.

Donelly & Toscano’s book ‘The Woman Who Fooled the World’ is a disturbing but necessary read.