What role does nutrition really play in tackling cancer?

A book by leading biochemist Dr Lawrence Plaskett champions the power of the body to destroy tumours naturally. Why this happens is not always clear but a change of diet and other nutritional and naturopathic measures can aid recovery, says Michael Finucane

The Nutritional Therapy of Cancer, a remarkable book by the respected Dr Plaskett - biochemist, medical researcher, food industry expert, practitioner of nutritional, herbal and homoeopathic medicine and founder of the Plaskett Nutritional Medicine College - comes as something of a surprise because when cancer is diagnosed, most of us assume that treatment will follow the usual orthodox medical paths of operation, chemotherapy and radiation. Nutrition will hardly figure as a possible part of the reversal of the disease and the medical profession derides it as follow-up therapy following successful conventional treatments. Dr. Plaskett realised, early in his career, the power of the body to destroy tumours, naturally. Why this happens is not always known but a radical change of diet and other nutritional and naturopathic measures have been shown to aid some of these means of recovery.

Cancer arises because weakened cells succumb to damage by environmental influences and it is not in dispute that nutritional measures that strengthen the cells against these influences prevent cancers from forming. What is in dispute is that nutritional measures can enable the body to reject established cancers and Dr. Plaskett set out to design a biochemically based, nutritional cancer therapy which could bring about reversal. His therapy was taken up by The Nutritional Therapy Cancer Trust in 1997 which used it to treat a substantial number of cancer patients until 2006. Well over half who closely followed the therapy went into full remission and, as far as could be told, were free from the disease and back in health. The purpose of his book is to contribute to the future development of improved cancer treatment and with the backing of the Trust's results, to encourage further, properly regulated trials by those who work with cancer, including doctors, so that the  therapy comes part of mainstream medicine.

Along with all animals and plants, humans are composed of cells which are made up, mostly, of a kind of jelly called protoplasm. This protoplasm is protected by a membrane which allows desirable material in and keeps out or expels the unwanted, one of the most important being the removal of sodium and the admittance of potassium. Inside the protoplasm there is the nucleus which is also protected by a membrane and outside the nucleus there are small organs called, 'organelles'. The nucleus of the cells are able to store information in substances such as protein or nucleic acids ‒ its DNA ‒ which enable it to produce new cells of the same kind. The energy to operate and reproduce comes from food ‒ carbohydrates, fat and protein.

All the biochemical reactions that take place in the cell are called its 'metabolism' which must maintain a equilibrium so the cells' structures and materials remain largely unchanged. Within this equilibrium, however, it must be able to adapt in order to survive or to contribute to overall body function and it is in constant contact with other types of cells through control mechanisms, which ensure the ordered functioning of the whole body. In cancerous cells, inter-cellular communication is disrupted, particularly in relation to the rate of cell division and the retention of cells within their own organs or tissue.

Toxic attack

In the battle to survive, cells are attacked by a range of toxins, the most vulnerable parts being its enzymes (which influence other substances without themselves changing), membranes and nucleic acids. The heavy metals, for example, inhibit the enzymes, other toxins damage the DNA (mutagens), and fatty substances, such as trans-fatty acids attack the membranes. The toxins use the medium of molecules called 'free-radicals' which react at speed with other, nearby, molecules causing cell damage resulting in ageing and an array of chronic diseases from diabetes to Alzheimer's, rheumatoid arthritis and cancer. Even in those who have a genetic pre-disposition to one of these diseases, it will not appear unless it is triggered by toxins. The body does provide protection against free-radicals but poor nutrition will downgrade it along with environmental factors such as industrial pollution. Ultimately, if the toxic 'load' becomes too great the cell dies. If cancerous cells died then, of course, all would be well but instead they survive as severely damaged cells which just manage to cheat death.

There are two stages in carcinogenesis ‒ 'initiation' and 'promotion' ‒ each brought about by different chemical toxins. Many researchers believe that with today's toxic environment, most people are already 'initiated' and are only waiting to be 'promoted'. Cancer starts in a single cell and the actual development of the disease depends on specific changes to the DNA and at least two of these 'events', and probably several, must coincide in a single cell before malignancy occurs. The 'mutations' to the DNA can be caused by chemical mutagens (some antibiotics are mutagens), by ionising radiation or ultraviolet light. The rate of division of normal cells is restricted to the number required for their function but in tumour cells this control system is destroyed and they start to multiply. When the tumour weighs a few grams it starts to release millions of cancer cells into the blood, every day. The kill rate by the immune system is impressive and most will not form secondaries, with 1 per cent of the cells surviving twenty four hours and 0.1 per cent lasting two weeks. Only some of them have the ability to metastasise and, with cancer cells it is, 'survival of the fittest', thus, making it crucial to catch the disease early. The more advanced it becomes the more resistant the tumour is to treatment. The doubling time of the size of the tumour varies a lot but is generally from one to twelve months and from the first lone cell to diagnosable size is from two and a half to thirty years.

Early victims

The first clear example of an environmental cause of cancer was in 1775 when soot caused chimney sweeps to develop the disease in the scrotum. Lancashire mill workers got cancer on the parts of their body which were constantly exposed to lubricating oil and workers who extracted oil from shale were also at risk. In the last century cigarette smoking was linked with cancer along with the exhaust of motor vehicles and the output of factory chimneys. All these cases were the result of  combustion but since then a wide range of chemicals have been found to be powerful carcinogens, including polychlorinated biphenyls which are used in making electrical equipment, plasticisers in plastics and food packaging. These PCBs were also found to suppress the immune system. Nitrates and nitrites are other hazards which can be added to the list of hundreds of chemical carcinogens.

One damaging agent at low levels will not necessarily cause disease but when different agents are present together their potency may be increased with devastating effect. If two can cause problems then what effect will hundreds of chemicals cause, when combined? This has never been properly investigated.

Apart from chemicals, two other causes of cancer need to be examined ‒ viruses and radiation. Generally, human cancers are not directly caused by viruses but in some forms they play a contributory role by damaging cells, particularly the DNA. One example is Hepatitis B which is a risk factor in the subsequent development of liver cell carcinoma, especially when combined with exposure to aflatoxin. Ionising radiation is another source of cell damage. Since man was on earth he has been exposed to 'background radiation' from the earth, rocks and cosmic rays, though our nutritional 'status' strongly influences our ability to withstand certain levels of radiation without developing cancer.

Nutritional solutions

Therefore, the naturopathic view is that cancer is caused by toxic damage to living human cells. Sometimes it is only one toxin or a few, but more often it is accumulations of numerous environmental toxins, each one, individually, acting at sub-clinical levels. Their effect will be more pronounced in those with some degree of genetic susceptibility or where their diet is, or has been seriously deficient or out of balance with respect to nutrients, particularly, micro-nutrients.

Naturopathic and holistic medicine dictates that the way to overcome disease is by restoring the body's natural power to heal itself. Dr. Plaskett takes the view that nutritional and orthodox medicine should work together and he advocates surgery to remove the primary tumour. One reason for this is that the body can concentrate its defences on the secondaries and the other is that if the body does succeed in destroying the primary tumour its disintegration will release a huge amount of toxins into the circulation, which the body hardly needs when it is struggling against the disease.

There is also the difficulty of whether radiotherapy should be used as it depresses the immune system and the tendency among naturopaths is to accept its use when there is a large benefit. Chemotherapy is in a different category. Although it can be effective in some specific types of the disease its success rate with many of the commonest cancers has been very poor and cellular damage, which includes damage to healthy cells, is often so great, that attempts to enhance the immune system with nutritional therapy are doomed to failure.

Largely preventable?

Along with other chronic diseases, cancer is largely preventable and before examining its treatment it is crucial to understand how to reduce the risk of succumbing to these diseases, as this impinges on treatment. The research evidence on the anti-cancer effects of phytonutrients, which are derived mostly from non-toxic plants, is vast. Generally, diets high in organic fresh fruit and vegetables are effective and in the USA, the National Cancer Institute found that those who had five servings of fruit and vegetables, daily, had half the chance of cancer of the digestive and respiratory tracts than those who ate under two servings. High vegetable intake, also, increases the anti-oxidant, carotenoids in the blood which have been strongly shown to inhibit carcinogenesis. Cancer, itself, suppresses the immune system and the indication is that the caratenoids enhance the immune system, quench free radicals and inhibit mutagenesis.

Like the carotenoids, the flavonoids, which include oranges, chocolate and beans, are anti-oxidants.  There is, also, strong evidence that a regular intake of onions gives some protection, particularly, from gastro-intestinal malignancies. Garlic, particularly fresh, inhibits cancer and Aloe vera is useful when taken with other components. Turmeric is, also, an effective inhibitor.

Trace elements ‒ the minerals present in enzymes or which act as enzyme promoters ‒ are, also, critical. Of these, selenium is the most important while Zinc is essential for DNA repair and for boosting the immune system ‒ the mechanism for cancer cell destruction.

Vitamin protection

The elimination of toxins is another critical factor and Vitamin C is an important de-toxifier.  Vitamin A has an outstanding record of protection against toxicity and Beta-carotene and Vitamin E protects cell membranes by absorbing free-radical damage and guards against chronic diseases, generally.

Other important factors are salt and sugar and chlorine. Cells normally retain a delicate balance of low sodium and a high potassium but when the cell is degraded by toxins, sodium can enter the cell and potassium can leak out ‒ a factor in chronic illnesses. When this process goes too far the cell dies. Too much salt in the diet, when there are other factors, can result in it directly entering the cells, disturbing the sodium / potassium balance. Too much sugar in the diet is generally toxic and, therefore, should be restricted. Chlorine in drinking water is another hazard as it causes toxic reactions in the body and a suitable water treatment should be installed in the home.

When it comes to the treatment of cancer, the naturopath's approach is to bring the fight to the tumours through the body's own defence mechanisms ‒ the tumours would not be there in the first place if those systems had been working properly (the exception being when the amount of cancer-causing agents has been overwhelming).

To optimise the chances of overcoming the disease the patient has to be fed with a wide range of the important anti-cancer nutrients and phytonutrients and in relatively large amounts. There are, at least eight different mechanisms by which nutrients may have an anti-cancer effect. These include using anti-oxidants to quench free radicals; anti-proliferative nutrients to slow tumour growth, such as, the flavonoids and Vitamin A; increasing production of detoxifying enzymes with the use of vegetables such as cabbage and magnesium; encouraging genetic repair to cancer cells so that they become normal again (zinc and garlic is useful for this); inhibiting metastasis with, for example, the nutrient Bromelain; stimulating the immune system with Aloe vera or Bromelain; inhibiting the growth of new blood vessels that the tumour needs, with soya bean or Isoflavone and inducing the spontaneous death of tumour cells with, for example, the Brassica vegetables. Some phytonutrients have multiple effects, such as green tea and Noni fruit.


It is important that not all these nutrients  should be in the form of supplements and the diet should be rich in whole, unprocessed fruit and vegetables and be alkali-forming rather than acid-forming which is, probably, essential for recovery from serious chronic illness of almost any kind. This provides the dietary fibre needed for good intestinal action and gives some assurance that important phytonutrients, present in foods, but not yet identified will be included in the diet.

Over the eight years of the trials, the Nutritional Therapy Cancer Trust applied the therapy to patients with the most common cancers and ranging in age from two years to those in their seventies. The majority needed two to three years treatment and forty patients ‒ 57 per cent of those who followed the protocol ‒ fully recovered. Of those who died some appeared to have defaulted in using some parts of the therapy and others died well beyond the length of their original prognosis. Also, the cases available for study did not include all the patients who undertook the therapy so there may be more than the known 40 survivors. When one considers that these were patients who had been, largely, written off by orthodox medical doctors, it is astonishing that this has not come to public attention.

Dr. Plaskett's book is an exhaustive and carefully compiled study which fills a huge gap in the general understanding of cancer and other chronic diseases and deserves wide attention. Orthodox  medical practitioners should, particularly, heed its contents.

The Nutritional Therapy of Cancer, by Dr. Lawrence Plaskett,
Lulu Enterprises UK Ltd, 263 Putney Bridge Road,
London, SW15 2P, United Kingdom. Book ID 7314657.


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