July 24, 2023

Overwhelmed By Cancer & Diet Choices?


Go green, vegan, raw, buy organic, juice up, chow on berries, ditch sugar. There are anti-cancer diet books, blogs, and products galore that tempt me where it most hurts – the idea that what I eat will make my cancer go away.

It’s anxiety provoking, wanting nothing more than to be cancer free and having to walk through the daily media circus of onco-food washing. There’s so much “information” with so little evidence behind it. It’s overwhelming to know what’s actually good for my body. There are times when I’ve wanted to cry raising a fork to my mouth and wondering if the food on it was killing me.

Some of the logic seems straightforward: put carcinogenic chicken in my body and increase my cancer burden. But for me, it isn’t that simple. Leading up to my diagnosis I was vegetarian for 14 years, vegan for 7 of them, did brown rice fasts, and thrived on organic greens and bulk whole grains. On this clean and green lifestyle, 19 tumors grew in my neck. It’s hard to know where to turn after that.

Enter Shannon, my voice of reason. It killed him to see me so freaked out over trying to be healthy. So we came up with a plan for what I should eat: 1. No dairy – it just makes me feel like crap – except I still eat organic butter, blue cheese, and bread pudding. (Why suck the joy out of life?) 2. Only organic and pasture fed meat and eggs. This means I eat a lot less meat because it’s expensive, hard to find, and almost never available in restaurants. It tastes a hell of a lot better though.  3. No packaged crap. This is nothing new for me. 4. Quality baked goods when I feel like it, which is only every so often. I’m talking peach cobblers with buttery crusts NOT brown rice syrup cookies.

Food is a pleasure for me again. I have no guesswork, no beating myself up at mealtime. And because I made these healthy rules myself, it is easy for me to comply with them, and to change them over time if they need tweaking.

Wheatgrass fasts might be fine for others, but for me, I’m anti anti-cancer diets. Instead I like the idea of crafting food guidelines tailored specifically to my life and my values. When creating a “diet” that worked for me here’s what I considered. Hope these are helpful for you too:

* How much time do I have for special meal preparation?
* How much money do I have in my budget to spend on food?
* What is the availability of quality produce and meats in my area?
* What makes my body feel good?
* Am I getting enough calories, protein, and nutrients?
* Do I trust the sources that are telling me what I should or should not eat?

Do you ever stress out about food contributing to your cancer burden? How do you tame that anxiety? Have you ever tried a cancer diet? Was it sustainable? What is your ideal healthy diet?

For more tips on balanced, healthy approaches to cancer and body mind healing, check out Everything Changes: The Insider’s Guide to Cancer in Your 20s and 30s.

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  1. Andrea S. Says:
    July 24th, 2009 at 12:05 PM

    I had an Great Aunt that had breast cancer years ago, and whom says that her juicing saved her life…she never underwent any treatments and is still here cancer free. Now fast forward 40 years, I tried juicing and going to raw foods, I just couldn’t keep it up, the very thought of this diet makes me want to throw up! I do like Juicing very much and go on spurts, a few weeks here and there…however its a lot of work to buy fresh veggies and fruits all the time, and I have to confess after a few weeks I just need a break. Organic Chicken is 3X the price in my supermarket, so I choose not to buy it. I do however buy organic eggs, milk, and most fruits and veggies. I think a good treat every now and then is also required!

  2. Carolyn Specker Cerrito Says:
    July 24th, 2009 at 4:58 PM

    This is such a relevant topic! Most people I encountered while in treatment for pelvic Ewing’s sarcoma had some contribution to make as to what I should or should not eat. I was told that if only I ate more broccoli, tomatoes, cauliflower, beans, olive oil, etc. Well, given my Italian and Jewish heritages, I grew up in a family where marinara sauce and falafel with fresh veggies were the norm. I learned to shrug off the “if only’s” and chalk them up to the fact that people often don’t know what to say when a 15-year old (or anyone for that matter) is diagnosed with cancer. My pet peeve now as a 20-year survivor is the “5 A Day” veggie campaign by ACS. Tell that to my radiation-damaged intestines that can no longer handle most of what these so-called “cancer prevention diets” prescribe, including my mom’s homemade marinara and falafel. They tout “cancer prevention diets” but they don’t publicize what to do when you’re faced with radiation enteritis years later as a late effect.

  3. Kairol Rosenthal Says:
    July 24th, 2009 at 6:24 PM

    These are really great points you two raise: Just because one person got healthy while juicing does not mean that the juicing is what made them healthy. The old saying “correlation does not mean causation.” It is great to have role models, but hard to put ourselves through the wringer thinking we can replicate their results. It is also very true that preventing cancer from ever growing is pretty different from curing it or making it go away once it is there. And a lot of these diets that address curing the cancer once it is there can be extremely stringent on the digestive system of people who are in a fragile treatment or post treatment stage, or who like Carolyn have damage from radiation. I tried juicing and raw fooding and it made my intestines bleed. I think there is no harm in trying these diets but we’ve gotta pay attention to our bodies in the process and know when to not push it if we can’t handle it.

  4. Cathy Bueti Says:
    July 24th, 2009 at 7:39 PM

    Ahhhhhh, cancer and diet. Where do I begin. lol I obsess over this so much it will probably make me sick! My diet before cancer was really bad. No veggies, barely any fruits, NO WATER….unless it was brown water (diet soda), super processed foods, white bread, pretty much nothing nutritious. Oh, and lets not forget that I also skipped meals as a way to maintain my weight. After cancer treatment was over I felt such a loss of control that I threw myself full force into changing my diet, taking supplements, juicing and dabbling in raw food. I did it to the point of obsessing. I know it was out of fear. I wanted to believe that if I ate well I could keep cancer from ever coming back. Not paying attention to what all this stress was doing to my mind and how that could affect my body. I have been juicing for about 6 years now and in all those years the past 2 months I have not juiced at all. And it is freaking me out! Its almost like I believe that juicing is the only reason I am still here after 8 years! Part of me knows that is just crazy talk. But the other part acts out of fear. I don’t even know why I stopped and havent gone back to it yet. Maybe because it is so much work for one and expensive with all the organic produce I was buying. My husband thinks that I obsess too much over it, not wanting to miss a day and in that just needed a break. I hate that it scares me to not do it. I hate living in fear of cancer.
    Then I think about my grandmother who lived to the ripe ol age of 86, smoked like a fiend since the age of 16, ate tons of meat and white bread, never even went to the doc until the end of her life. What’s that about?
    I have spent so much time looking for a way to ensure that I stay healthy and cancer free, looking for the “cookbook” recipe that will let me know how to stay alive. But the problem is that in that I am wasting all this time not living, not having fun, not enjoying pizza sometimes, and feeling guilty for eating icecream.
    Thank you for sharing this part of your life with us. It helps me so much to know that I am not the only one who struggles with this!

  5. Wendy S. Harpham, MD Says:
    July 24th, 2009 at 8:01 PM

    Dear Kairol,

    A topic dear to my heart! Your readers may enjoy reading “Killer Coke” (from ONLY 10 SECONDS TO CARE): http://tinyurl.com/lv7osm

    With hope, Wendy

  6. Lyndsae Says:
    July 24th, 2009 at 11:02 PM

    I, like you Kairol, was a vegetarian of sorts for many years prior to my diagnosis. I occasionally ate chicken, but only organic and free range. I ate lots of veggies and fruits (many of them organic), small amounts of dairy (organic only), no processed sugar, only whole or sprouted grain carbs, lots of healthy fatty acids, nuts, legumes, brown rice - I was an extremely healthy eater, but wasn’t dogmatic about it and didn’t feel guilty if I ate piece of cake occasionally. I also avoided all carcinogenic and hormone disrupting chemicals in products like shampoo and conditioner, soap, lotion, toothpaste, makeup, etc. I meticulously read every label of every product that came in to contact with my body. I read books on cancer prevention. I drank lots water and tea. I was the anti-cancer queen. And I got cancer anyway.
    I went to these lengths because cancer is so prevalent in my family, and I felt that being educated and proactive was the smartest approach to prevention. I had a very hard time explaining to people that I didn’t make these choices out of fear - I wasn’t trembling in the corner worrying I would get cancer because half my relatives had it. Instead I was staying up on the latest research and taking action. My doctors applauded my preventive measures.

    At the time of my diagnosis I was working as the manager of a yoga studio which put me squarely in the middle of the alternative health crowd. As people found out, everybody and their sister was going to cure my cancer with their diet recommendations. Every time I turned around people were telling me if I just ate the way they told me to, or drank their green powder, I would be cured. I cannot express the frustration I felt during this time. I already felt overwhelmed that somehow, despite my best efforts, I had gotten a disease I thought I knew how to prevent. They were reinforcing my feeling of helplessness. During treatment my diet was extremely limited by what I was able to hold down, as well as my neutropenia. I often felt fear that living on grilled cheese sandwiches, eggs and soup was hurting my nutritional health, but there wasn’t much I could do at the time. People constantly telling me I needed to eat macrobiotic or raw vegan or whatever made me a nervous wreck.

    Now, post treatment, my diet is much like it was before. I still avoid carcinogens in body products just as avidly. Eating healthy is part of who I am and having a healthy lifestyle makes me feel like I am being proactive. It’s just how I want to live.

  7. Jen Singer Says:
    July 25th, 2009 at 10:30 AM

    I have decided not to obsess about it. Like you, I ate healthy before cancer. For two years, I did the Sugar Busters diet and hardly ate desserts or drank alcohol. When I found out I had cancer, I swung the pendulum the other way and ate Haagen Dazs every day.

    Now, I’m somewhere in the middle, just eating sensibly but not depriving myself of good stuff now and then. I eat organic as often as possible, too.

    Nice blog, Kairol!

  8. Tara Says:
    July 25th, 2009 at 2:03 PM

    I always struggled with this too. 1)Cause food makes me happy 2)I don’t have the energy and resources to go hardcore with the diet stuff. The food prep alone is often too much for me. And I now feel that, along with the stress of worrying about maintaining an “anti-cancer diet”,ha, probably does more harm, and outweighs the benefit of eating healthy.

    If diet was all that mattered, we wouldnt hear stories of people who ate really healthy and still got cancer, and people who ate really bad and didnt. So right now, for me, it’s come down to a balance, or being “in the middle”, like the above post said. I try to eat healthy when/where I can. But I can’t be perfect, so I substiute as best I can, try to feel good about that. But still enjoy the good stuff, and hope the balance of the two is better than doing nothing.

  9. Michelle Says:
    July 26th, 2009 at 12:08 AM

    I am dealing with this now - thanks for getting into my brain! Since chemo ended in December, my hubby and I have been making a conscious effort to eat better - less fat, less meat, more fresh fruits and veggies, etc. However, we won’t deny ourselves things like wedding cake, etc. We try to keep it in moderation. However, it’s so easy (and tempting!) to take part in the many anti-cancer diets that are touted.

  10. Laura Says:
    July 26th, 2009 at 3:47 PM

    Good topic. I like your advice to listen to your body…that’s my main guideline now, along with eating the veggies that appeal to me and that have shown some benefit for colon cancer in lab studies.

    Before the diagnosis, I was considered the healthiest eater and exerciser in my family. When I was diagnosed, everyone (including me) was flabbergasted.

    My first obssession with anti-cancer foods was tumeric (a common curry ingredient). I read that tumeric was an almost magical drug and became convinced that if I didn’t use this spice, I would die (or at least die more quickly). I hated curry at the time and couldn’t even bring myself to try tumeric.

    After a month or so of struggling with this, my light bulb of critical thinking went on and I realized that if tumeric was a cure for cancer, everyone would be using the spice and getting well.

    So I put it down. Stopped worrying about it.

    A few months later, I tried tumeric, pepper and olive oil as a seasoning. I was surprised to like it. And it may provide a benefit in that my body has more cancer fighting power…but we are complex systems and no ONE thing is going to cure us.

    That said, I do avoid sugar like the plague. If there’s fewer than 6 grams of sugar in a processed bread or cereal or food, I will eat it. Otherwise, it’s a VERY occasional treat.

    Except for my square of dark chocolate each night. Hey, a girl’s gotta enjoy some pleasures!

    Love the list of questions about diet to help us clarify our dietary goals. I’d add seeking out the help of a nutritionist who specializes in cancer patients to the list, for those so inclined.

  11. Shane Says:
    July 26th, 2009 at 4:47 PM

    I like your plan and I also like your suggestion to ask yourself if you trust the sources you are getting info from. It boils down to litening to your body doesn’t it?

  12. Kairol Rosenthal Says:
    July 26th, 2009 at 8:53 PM

    Laura - Fantastic suggestion about going to see a nutritionist who knows about cancer and diets. I have found that there is a very wide range of who a nutritionist is: I talked to one in a hospital and realized that she was pretty much just trained in the food pyramid; I talked to another at an alternative medicine cancer center in Evanston, whose diet was super strict, and by my standards was not evidence based. You’ve spurred me on to wanting to research and do a blog post (or series) about different types of nutritionists and how to search for one that is right for you.

    Also, I have been taking tumeric based upon the recommendation of a CAM doctor using dosages prescribed on studies for my kind of cancer. The practitioner told me that the amount of tumeric needed was too much to be obtained via normal food consumption, so I am taking capsules of it. Didn’t know if that was something you had considered or not. Hope you are well! Kairol - P.S. I love your use of the word flabbergast!

  13. Luke Holland Says:
    July 27th, 2009 at 12:45 PM

    Swell post Toots. I like the list.

    Make food a rationale choice … maximize the feeling good about healthy-ish guesses and minimize the self-hate

    Maybe add to the list, does it enrich our life … mind, body, and soul

    How do we decide what book selling experts to believe though???

    Personally, I like “In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto” by Michael Pollan. I suppose my recommendation is as good as any on accounts of I’s gots book learning and one of deem health care provider license which still don’t get me a discount at the moving pictures show.

    At least Michael Pollan points out that the professionalization of eating has failed to make Americans healthier. Thirty years of official nutritional advice has only made us sicker and fatter. The American paradox is that the more we worry about nutrition, the less healthy we seem to become.

    I like his seven simple but liberating words,
    “Eat ‘food.’ Not too much. Mostly plants.”

    The new old message is that “food” should be defined as traditional and ecologically sustainable, well-grown, unprocessed. The sort of food our great grandmothers would recognize as food. Indeed as you pointed out, not yummy packaged crack-o-licious frankenfoods.

    We are unfortunately filled with the hyped newest hope instead of the up to date amorphous rationale advice.

    Interestingly, if someone actually believes they have a “healthy” diet past research says there is a good chance they are wrong.

    For better and worse we are hardwired to hope though. We all need to drink the nutrition-ism Kool-Aid …. well maybe drink Kool-Aid if it was confirmed as a true-ish “super” food with a focus group approved kewl cape and stuff.

    The only thing I call evidence based is the recommendations of the American Institute for Cancer research (http://www.aicr.org/site/PageServer?pagename=dc_home_guides):

    1. Be as lean as possible without becoming underweight.
    2. Be physically active for at least 30 minutes every day.
    3. Avoid sugary drinks. Limit consumption of energy-dense foods (particularly processed foods high in added sugar, or low in fiber, or high in fat).
    4. Eat more of a variety of vegetables, fruits, whole grains and legumes such as beans.
    5. Limit consumption of red meats (such as beef, pork and lamb) and avoid processed meats.
    6. If consumed at all, limit alcoholic drinks to 2 for men and 1 for women a day.
    7. Limit consumption of salty foods and foods processed with salt (sodium).
    8. Don’t use supplements to protect against cancer.
    Special Population Recommendations
    9. It is best for mothers to breastfeed exclusively for up to 6 months and then add other liquids and foods.
    10. After treatment, cancer survivors should follow the recommendations for cancer prevention.

    Still there are also some interesting educated guesses out there, such as turmeric/curcuminoids. Depending on someone’s individual circumstance educated hope fads are worth the Vegas gamble. Just avoid guilt ridden have too because Vitamin E, C, Selenium, folic acid, etc. were once evidenced based.

    Ideally, one utopian day, each individual will be able to put or have their unique data points put into a software program that can make individualized recommendations based on current peer reviewed research, to include a understandable quantification of the level of evidence for each possible recommendation.

    Also, Christopher Gardner, PhD, Director of Nutrition Studies at the Stanford Prevention Research Center had a nifty talk on the People’s Pharmacy about how to evaluate the changing news on nutrition and design a healthy diet.


    I still say at least bring pleasure to eating.

    And when you are going to food sin … sin hard … love the beauty of your nutritional short coming … enjoy the warm gooey bliss of your irrational decadence … dance nekkid in big ole vats of Sinnabons and scotch. Cuz sinning has always been more fun than behaving all the time.

    But yes I too want to believe just to have something to believe … “something you can set up, and bow down before, and offer a sacrifice to …”


    Always … or until some expert, peer pressure, or swell ad campaign says different

  14. Infidel Poetry Says:
    July 31st, 2009 at 6:53 AM

    If I got cancer I would still be vegan.

    Despite popular misconceptions, veganism is not a “health diet,” I certainly don’t expect any health outcomes from not wearing fur or leather.

    Plant-based diets can be healthful and are associated with certain lower risk factors, but that’s all it is, risk factors, not a guarantees. There’s still genetics and environments and other lifestyle habits and plain old dumb luck to contend with. I view my vegan eating habits as equivalent to eating any other sort of well-planned nonvegan diet plan except that it suits my values and ethics.

    I don’t find being vegan difficult or feel like I’m deprived or missing out so there is no concept of cheating or pining for a meat. I don’t understand ex-vegetarains who feel so elated to eat meat once again.

    There’s stuff I eat, and stuff I don’t because I don’t consider it food. There’s plenty of vegan comfort food and junk food, so I can indulge or satiate my sweet tooth if I want to. I enjoy eating vegetables and fruits and beans and grains, but I’m not really into juicing or supplements or focusing on specific prevention foods or certain preparations or avoiding substances like gluten. I’ll have a fruit smoothing every once and a while and raw food in the form of a salad or piece of fruit, and I do sensible things like avoid hydrogenated oils (which isn’t difficult, at least how I eat), but that’s about it.

    Life is short and ultimately meaningless. The only meaning is what we choose to imbue it with through our choices and I do my best to keep the gratuitous amounts of cultural animal exploitation and slaughter out of my life.

    I probably sound preachy or judgmental, but I’m just describing my perspective and I certainly don’t claim to be perfect or have all the answwers, we all have to make our own choices. Kairol claimed to be a former vegan so a discussion on what veganism is about, what it’s really about, shouldn’t be too out of place.

  15. Kairol Rosenthal Says:
    July 31st, 2009 at 11:02 AM

    Infidel Poetry - Your perspectives on what you think veganism is really about for you are very welcome. Thanks for your contribution to the conversation. The one point I respectfully challenge you on is your first - “if you had cancer”. I have had friends tell me if they had cancer they would never do x,y,z - take toxic treatments, drink ensure, whatever… All I can say is that the body does spectacularly weird things when you have cancer, and until each person is in the midst of dealing with it, they cannot really know what choices they would make. For example, if even the tiniest overcooked amounts of the most bland fruits and veggies caused the puss laden sores in your mouth to feel like they were being lanced with acid, you might be desperate enough to put into your mouth things that you had never before considered eating. Or as was my case before I was accurately diagnosed, I experienced such extreme fatigue that I would fall asleep on my bathroom floor after brushing my teeth because it expended too much energy and I couldn’t even crawl back to my bed. I was desperate enough to try anything to make my body feel better that I considered and did eat meat for the first time in 15 years. Sometimes the body does things we never expected it to do and in response, so do we.

  16. Missy Diggs Says:
    August 8th, 2009 at 10:16 AM

    Kairol, I am in the middle of this right now. During treatment I panicked about it in my support group and the leader said treatment is the wrong time to make dramatic changes in your diet. At the time I chafed but now that I am out of treatment I see the wisdom. I read somewhere that many cancer patients die of starvation and was grateful that I was able to eat at all. Some days it was mostly chocolate milkshakes, but that was better than going to bed without dinner. Now I am trying to figure out how to eat so that, if I do have a recurrence, it will not be accompanied by the guilt of not having done everything I could! Cold comfort, maybe, but I am hoping it will reduce daily stress now, not add to it. That’s the balance I’m trying to find. The lack of evidence, and the conflicting evidence, and the willingness of professionals to base everything on one study, and the flaws in the studies themselves ….. Well, it’s enough to make anyone crazy! Add to that the issue of being significantly “overweight” and itcan be paralyzing. Most studies seem to agree that it’s better to be lighter than heavier, but it doesn’t follow that it’s safe, healthy, or possible to lose weight. So far I’m having a hard time finding much reliable info abou that. Great post!

  17. Chris Says:
    April 27th, 2010 at 12:23 PM

    That last one is probably the most important one.

    On a side note, have you seen the two documentaries Super Size Me and Food Inc.?

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