When you first receive a cancer diagnosis your mind may initially go to what’s next with regard to treatment. And that is, in fact, the first order of business. But after you settle into how the disease will be treated, and how you’re going to navigate the day-to-day logistics of treatment, there’s the matter of how you plan to cope going forward.
That’s how it played out for Kelly Spill, 30, who was diagnosed with stage 3 colorectal cancer at age 28, soon after becoming a new mom.
“I was pregnant and seeing symptoms of bleeding a month before I had my baby,” says Spill. “I knew something couldn’t be right.” Her doctor, taking into account her age and the fact that she was nine months pregnant, told her he was positive it was internal hemorrhoids, which are common in pregnancy and notorious for causing blood in the stool.
Hemorrhoid bleeding is unnerving, but relatively benign and not an emergency. Spill turned her attention back to her son’s impending birth.
When the bleeding continued postpartum, she knew something was wrong, but it took visits to several different doctors to convince them to act on it. Finally, nine months after her son’s birth, and many doctor’s visits later, Spill was diagnosed with colorectal cancer, a disease that has become increasingly common in young people in recent years.
At first, Spill was told she faced surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation, a constellation of treatment that would have made conceiving another child not possible. But, as it happened, her doctors discovered that she was eligible for a clinical trial of a new immunotherapy treatment.
That treatment put her cancer into remission.
Now, she says, “I’m able to live my life. I just love every single day, and it is just a miracle, to be honest.”
As she’s moved forward, past her diagnosis and treatment, the question of how to live healthily, in a way most conducive to keeping cancer at bay, has come to the forefront. For Spill, that has meant, first and foremost, a focus on her diet.
Her oncologist told her to cut back on red meats and cold cuts, and she’s made those changes. But Spill wants to do more. And her instincts are good, says Joseph Feuerstein, MD, assistant professor at Columbia University in New York City and an integrative physician in Connecticut.
It's difficult to run diet-based clinical trials, and many cancers may occur over long periods of time, making it hard to point conclusively to factors that contribute to promoting or slowing down cancerous growth.
That said, Dr. Feuerstein says the evidence thus far points to three key points to when it comes to nutrition and cancer: inflammation, epigenetics, and, in the case of immunotherapy, an extra diet-related opportunity.
“A diet that is inflammatory will likely cause more turnover of cells, which can become abnormal, cancerous cells,” he says, noting that an anti-inflammatory diet may prevent that to some degree.
Furthermore, says Feuerstein, research shows that epigenetic influences — environmental factors like food — can switch genes that contribute to cancer formation off. Finally, Feuerstein says, there are specific foods that, like immunotherapy, down-regulate cell signals that cause cancerous cells to proliferate. Translation: Immunotherapy plus diet is a win-win.
Feuerstein chats with Spill and Rachel Wong, RD, who provides nutrition therapy to oncology patients from diagnosis to survivorship at Georgetown Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center in Washington, DC, about the ideal anti-cancer diet, while chef Daniel Green, who specializes in healthy eating, translates their dietary acumen into three anti-inflammatory, plant-based, fiber-rich recipes.