I, Sarah Charles, wrote an article in about raw food diets after I came across a testimonial from a survivor who followed a raw food diet and “didn't go for any of the conventional therapy, at least for a while.” She was being coached by a raw food advocate who claimed that “shrinking cancer can be done very easily . . . just by life forces giving you the food, rather than from an outside force and medically.”
Please see our raw food diet article for a description of typical raw food diet restrictions and how such a diet potentially affects breast cancer risk. To summarize, a vegetarian raw food diet would probably be beneficial for breast cancer patients with a few important modifications.
However, there is no objective scientific evidence that adopting a raw food diet alone can cure breast cancer in the absence of conventional medical treatment. Here's my message to those who might be contemplating adopting a raw food diet (or any other diet) and other lifestyle changes as their only treatment for breast cancer.
Why a raw food diet alone cannot cure breast cancer
Raw food diets eliminate some of the triggers for cancer initiation, growth, proliferation and migration by eliminating some carcinogens from the diet. Such diets also increase the concentrations of some compounds that are known to be associated with lower risk of breast cancer when consumed in the diet. However, in most cases, other factors also play a role in cancer initiation and development. For example, exposure to radiation to the chest (especially in late childhood), early menstruation, tall stature, number of children and whether they were breastfed, and genetic predisposition all can influence risk of breast cancer. None of these factors can be changed by diet after diagnosis and it is not reasonable to assume that diet can overcome their effects once breast cancer has developed. Cancer also has its own defenses, which can only be overcome with more powerful methods than adopting a healthy diet.
Logic can be treacherous
It is logical that since cavemen didn't cook their food (at least not at first), we did not originally evolve to eat cooked food and it might be harmful to us. However, logic is best used to explain a small set of discrete observations — it is not as useful for drawing conclusions from large and varied data sets since there tend to be many more contributing factors than are at first apparent. For example, like some contemporary primates, Paleolithic women probably ate insects and grubs. Does that mean that we might be missing crucial elements of an ideal diet by avoiding raw bugs and worms? There are plenty of other ways in which we differ from cavewomen in our diets and life styles. Were cavewomen healthier than modern women? Hard to say since their life expectancy was so short.
While interesting theories should not be dismissed out of hand, they should be tested to see if, and to what extent, they are true. In fact, raw food diets have been studied and found to reduce some important risk factors for heart disease, diabetes and cancer.
Vegetarians also get breast cancer
While vegetarians have a lower risk of breast cancer than meat eaters, some vegetarians do get breast cancer. It could be argued that this is because some vegetarians eat dairy products. However, if strict vegans didn't get cancer, it would have been noticed, studied and accounted for. Could cancers in vegetarians possibly occur because they eat many of their vegetables cooked instead of raw? The implication would be that cooking vegetables contributes to breast cancer development. It's hard to come up with a mechanism of action that could explain such a relationship.
Where are the studies of raw food diets as cancer cures?
There have been serious raw food diet proponents and practitioners who have claimed cancer cures since the first half of the last century. While significant benefits of such diets have been demonstrated, curing cancer is not among them. Yet there exist alternative treatment centers and many individual health practitioners who make a raw food diet the centerpiece of their breast cancer treatment regimens. Responsible mainstream researchers would be reluctant to attempt a study in which standard medical treatment was given to one set of breast cancer patients while only a raw food diet was administered to a similar group of patients to compare their effectiveness. Raw food proponents would also probably argue that they get the hopeless cases who were always less likely to survive, so that it is unfair to judge their performance by their many failures.
However, at the very least, women who have refused conventional medical treatment and chosen the raw food approach could be matched and compared retrospectively with a similar set of women who received standard treatment. This would require data concerning breast cancer type, stage, and other prognostic factors. Such data could be collected readily concerning patients at conventional cancer centers, but it is not clear that the records kept by those treating breast cancer with raw food diets are of the quality that would be required to compare the outcomes. Nevertheless, such a study could provide potentially useful information. Prospective patients of raw food practitioners or centers should ask for whatever data is available on the outcomes of patients treated by them.
In addition, raw food diet-based practitioners are in a position to observe which patients benefit most from their diets, even if they do get a lot of patients with poor outlooks. Suppose there are small groups that tend to have longer remissions than others. What are their characteristics? If such data has been collected, it has not been shared, possibly because raw food advocates wish to present their methods as effective treatment for every type of breast cancer.
Chemotherapy can be terrible - that's how it kills cancer cells
Chemotherapy affects some normal cells as well as breast cancer cells, leading to temporary and permanent side effects in most women. A minority of women die from it (usually from heart complications). Chemotherapy regimens are calibrated to kill the most cancer cells while enabling the patient to survive the treatment. The cancer-inhibiting effects of any diet, no matter how strict, cannot compare to the toxic onslaught of chemotherapy in eradicating cancer cells. Survival times, even for women who have stage IV breast cancer, have improved over time as better chemotherapy and other treatments have been developed. As noted above, there are no published academic studies that demonstrate a survival benefit for a raw food diet alone as cancer treatment.
At the very least, have surgery for breast cancer
The single most important part of early stage cancer treatment is to surgically remove the tumor. This eliminates the main source of new breast cancer cells and obliges the cancer to grow a tumor in a new location from cancer cells that are elsewhere in the body (if any). Adopting a raw food diet (or any other specialized cancer diet) instead of undertaking surgery amounts to giving up the main line of defense against the spread of breast cancer. None of the cancer cells in any tumor that has been removed can ever migrate and metastasize — they are gone for good.
Signs that you are not in good hands
While oncologists at conventional medical centers may be compassionate, they typically are very busy. There is not much of a “sell,” whether hard or soft, to get you to use their services because they have too many patients as it is. However, they will try to answer any questions you might have objectively and to the best of their ability. They know the limitations of their treatments and will normally tell you the outcome statistics if you want to know them. They will not promise a cure, because breast cancer can never said to be cured. You can check on their backgrounds and qualifications.
Alternative treatment (not to be confused with the integrative medicine used by some centers that combines conventional medical treatment with nutrition and lifestyle modifications) practitioners and centers tend to have a warmer atmosphere and the staff might seem nicer. They might spend more time with you and act more relaxed and reassuring. Questions about prognosis might not be met with specifics, but there will be astounding and inspiring examples of women who were cured of breast cancer despite poor prognoses. Usually, there exists a leader (whether living or dead) whose precepts are trusted and who is said to have presided over remarkable cures.
However, once you start the treatment, you might find that the most cooperative patients get the most positive attention. Doubts and questions about prognosis may be discouraged. Questions might be met with patient explanations of precepts developed by the leader. Admonitions to “be positive” and “to fight” might not be a bad idea, but can translate into an oppressive atmosphere if you are not feeling well. In fact, since it is not possible for most people to conform to a 100 percent raw food diet, if you are not cured, it will be your fault (you let some negative thoughts in also, didn't you?). The friendliness might fade a bit if you are doing worse and want ongoing diagnostic tests or to try more conventional treatment. Now you know that you are in bad hands.
What happens in the end? Typically, there are no provisions or facilities at alternate treatment centers for patients who are in the end stages of cancer. Such patients are subtly rejected and are not discouraged from leaving. While mainstream oncologists might also reject their patients once everything possible has been attempted, there are institutional support mechanisms such as counseling and hospice that take over for patients and their families at this stage. Patients who pack up and leave after treatments at alternative medicine centers might have trouble reestablishing such support mechanisms. Most breast cancer patients ultimately will use conventional medicine in addition to alternative treatments, but they may lose valuable time and opportunities to have a more favorable prognosis if they start out with diet only.
Adopt a healthy cancer-preventive diet
As noted above, a raw food diet is likely to offer some protection against breast cancer and its recurrence compared to the typical American diet. However, it makes more sense to focus on specific fruits and vegetables found to reduce cancer risk and recurrence, as well as avoiding those that have been found to promote breast cancer. Adopting a tailored breast cancer diet based on the available scientifc evidence is the approach we suggest for those with breast cancer, not as a cure, but as one strategy to improve prognosis. Please see our article on how to optimize your breast cancer diet for information on what to eat during all stages of treatment and recovery.