During the months and years that my wife had cancer lurking, ever-present, like most people in this position she wanted to give herself the best chance of her body beating it. To this end, we bought book, after book, of supposedly cancer-busting, life-saving diets or diet and supplement regimes.
Diet & Recipe Books
We began with the books promoting specific diets such as vegan, low-carb, ketogenic (keto), and so-on. Stories from cancer survivors tell how they followed strict diet-X and this helped them survive. These diets, therefore, appear to offer a controllable action which you can do yourself to prevent or limit tumour growth and maybe, just maybe reduce them or destroy them completely. My wife obsessed with diets and planning meals, particularly with the keto regime in mind. Keto dieting proved slightly awkward as she was already a vegetarian.
Even during her last couple of weeks in the hospital, I must have bought half-a-dozen to a dozen recipe books like “The Keto Vegan” and spent hours reading recipe names and ingredients for meals I felt likely I would never get to make for her. I never knew whether she “truly” thought she would get to eat them herself or not. She was such a fighter and hopeful of beating cancer I assume she was actually planning a list of things to eat when she got home. Either way, it gave us something positive and forward-looking to talk about even if I did have to order some odd ingredients from her bedside that I was pretty certain I would never use.
Cancer “Busting” Diets
For the months and years before then, though, the books which drove me slightly mad, and confused my wife so were the books with titles such as “How to Starve Cancer” and “Eat to Beat Disease”. We had a lot of these. These books tend to be written by doctors or people who have other confidence-boosting letters after their name. Some would be two-hundred pages of waffle before telling you to eat turmeric and Mongolian dust-plant-root (I made that last one up) and then giving you 50 ways to ruin your meals with them. Others would give you long science-based (or at least scientific-sounding) explanations of nutrient groups, chemical pathways, immune system boosting foods, food to avoid, cancer-reducing chemicals, cancer-feeding chemical, food chemical combinations.
If read in isolation these books give you reasons and a plan for what to eat. When read en-mass however, the contradictions and conflicts in the writings can drive you nuts. Dr X. says you should always eat A to do this beneficial thing but Physiotherapist (yes I know!) Y says to avoid A as it does that harmful thing but, if your cancer feeds on a certain type of nutrient (how do we ask it?) then you should combine A with B, but Dr. X says to never eat B. And so on. Hours were spent during days and evenings creating charts, lists and tables of good foods, bad foods, combination foods, and improbable supplement combinations with tenuous suggested benefits but all of which “needs further research”. I still have a cupboard full of things like liquorice root, green tea extract (and boxes of green tea), boswellia serrata extract, luteolin extract, reishi mushroom powder, and so on. I know I should just bin these as I have no intention of using them but they were hard to get hold of and expensive. I might have one of those “released from stuff-burden” days soon and chuck it all out and feel relief and freedom from having them stare at me and nag me from their shelves. Many of them are not even open.
Food – Control and Hope
Of course, the books contain hope-confirming stories of survival by people who followed the advice therein, coming back from various scary stages of cancer. These stories usually occupy the first half of the book. These books tend to be very long. I think this is to make them look impressive and to justify the usually high asking price. They tend to repeat themselves a lot and before telling you something “useful” (the reason for wanting the book), keep dropping in padding along the lines of “before I tell you about the ultimate nutrient combination for cancer-x, let me reiterate the story of Julie who ate nothing but raspberries”.
It is good to get hope from these things, it really is. One of the big problems with having cancer, and living with someone who has it, is the feeling of helplessness. You really, really, want to do something to help, to fix it, to mend the body. Do anything. These diet/supplement books give one something seemingly proactive to do, something you can at least control. The feeling of lack of control is horrible. Controlling your food is something you can focus on and actually do. As someone who likes to help, to support and ideally to fix, whilst I personally didn’t hold out hope for this stuff it was something to do. I joined in trying some of these diets or supplements but most of them were not for me (sorry green tea, we were never going to get on). However, I could discuss (at length) weekly meal plans, supplement regimes and make the food. It gave my wife a feeling that she was doing positive and that was so important. A feeling of winning.
On occasion, I would get angry at the books, their contradictory advice, the suggestion of the positive effects of things without proof, the amount of time we spent going over them and recipes again, and again. I would vent my feeling that it was all pointless. Then I would realise that my wife had little to hold on to and was clutching at these tenuous straws. They gave hope. I would apologise, feel guilty and make some pea soup with a turmeric tea chaser, and feign enthusiasm as the next book got delivered.
The trouble is, for each of the miracle-cure case studies, there are probably a load more where the diet did nothing to help survival. The issue is that in those cases there is no case study – the people died. Of course, it wouldn’t be a good selling point if the author wrote about Jean who survived on her diet of blueberries and black rice but also the twelve others from the case study who died anyway and may not have had their favourite things to eat on the way.
Of course, these diets and supplements didn’t beat her cancer back. Maybe it slowed it down a little but how can I tell? There was no control case to compare it to and therein lies the problem. They did offer hope and that was very important. However, so many times I just wanted my wife to eat, and enjoy, the food she actually liked without feeling dreadfully guilty and that her token slice of pizza, or a mouthful of cake, was sending her to her death.