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Eating to Beat Cancer: Diet May Prove to be a Cure

Harriet Sugar-Miller

Harriet Sugar-Miller

Last night, it was cauliflower curry on a bed of leeks while my husband grilled his own slab of meat. The night before I ate solo — and downed an enormous bag of kale chips (please don’t tell him) flavored with cashew dust and too much fake cheese. And tonight? I’m sticking to my dietitian’s advice to shut down the digestive track by 7 p.m.-ish and calling my late lunch “lupper.”

But I’ve been known to cheat.

In fact, cheating is what I’m all about — cheating my body into a metabolic state that puts up its dukes to fight cancer, lest some imperfect genes win the battle. And I cheat on my plan every once in a while too, because perfection, as a rule, stinks. You see I’ve had cancer twice — a rare ovarian — and other than surgery, the doctors told me there was nothing they could do. The good news: It’s slow growing. The bad news:  it’ll likely come back.

Devouring science, changing diet

So for seven years now, since the recurrence, I’ve been taking my health into my own hands, devouring the science and changing what I eat. And I’m still clean. Sure, I understand that association doesn’t prove cause. Maybe I’d still be cancer-free had I clung to my late-night rituals involving vanilla ice cream. But look at the upside: I feel great, am rarely sick and have a powerful sense of control over my body. And the best part of adopting an anti-cancer approach to eating? Maybe I’m actually keeping cancer cells at bay.

The evidence for diet’s impact on cancer keeps getting stronger: 3 to 4 million cases of the disease per year could be prevented by changes in food consumption and exercise, according to an international team of scientists who study the many studies on how nutrition impacts cancer and the many genes that affect it.

How many existing cancerous cells could be stopped from growing, spreading and taking another life by changing our diet? That’s a rhetorical question, I realize, one there’s not yet enough evidence for scientists to answer. Nor may there ever be — at least not in our lifetimes. But they do know that certain dietary factors can cause cancer cells to proliferate. This just out: A review of the scientific literature published this summer identifies 40-plus elements in plants that activate metastasis-suppressing genes. 

Beating cancer: Foods to avoid

The bottom line is that we should all be eschewing red and processed meat and emphasizing a diet based on non-starchy plants, says that esteemed panel of scientists, who, through the World Cancer Research Fund/American Institute for Cancer Research, have published more than a thousand pages of reports.

From what they and others tell us, however, it’s much more complex than picking foods from the earth. When it comes to eating to beat cancer, some vegetables are better than others, for example; raw is often good, but not always; and you can overdose on many acceptable choices, including my Indonesian tempeh wraps and cannellini humus.  We’re all different in terms of our genes, how our bodies metabolize food and drugs and how our cells react.

But some general patterns about nutrition’s impact on cancer are emerging, and while the evidence may not be definitive on all counts, scientists are providing enough fodder for all of us to rethink what we put on our plates.   

Eating to beat cancer: Vegetables that cheat the beast

If you were to ask me for three simple changes you could make this month to boost your chances of fighting the beast, here’s what I’d suggest:

1. Embrace alliums (onions, garlic, leeks), crucifers (broccoli, Brussels sprouts and other members of the cabbage family) and dark, leafy greens. Studies show they top the list of cancer-fighting veggies, assuming they’re not overcooked. Both groups contain smelly sulfur compounds that protect against carcinogens and lead cancer cells down the path to suicide. Crucifers also seem to protect against estrogen, one of many hormones that signal cancer cells to grow.

2. Get your blood sugar under control. That means watching your intake of simple sugars (including fruits) and the more complex ones called carbs — potatoes, breads, pastas and grains, even whole ones. All increase your blood sugar; in response, your pancreas pours out insulin — another hormone that can spur cancer growth. By focusing on non-starchy veggies, fiber, good proteins and a small portion of healthy fats, you’ll help regulate your blood sugar.

3. Cook with spices, herbs and verve. “It’s well known that herbs and spices have a variety of anti-cancer benefits,” says Dr. Gary G. Meadows, who did the study identifying the plant elements that affect metastasis-suppressing genes. Because they work in different ways, “it’s important to eat a variety of spices and herbs, both fresh and dried, to maximize the anti-cancer activities that they have,”  Meadows says.

Turn your kitchen into a shrine to Earth’s diversity. Make Indian, Thai, Italian feasts. Liven up your meals with basil, rosemary, parsley, mint, cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, turmeric (which you should mix with black pepper and heat in a dab of olive oil to ensure absorption.)  While it’s not always the easiest option, cooking at home is the best way to control your destiny.

Broccoli puttanesca, anyone?  Steam the greens lightly — and pass me the cooking water!

Photo: Harriet Sugar Miller. Credit: Holly Botner

Zester Daily contributor Harriet Sugar Miller has been an independent health journalist and cancer survivor for two decades. She blogs about the nutrition-cancer connection at and is writing a book, with practical guidelines and easy recipes.

  • Sue Style 9·26·12

    Nice piece, Harriet – I love the way you say you feel great, are rarely sick and – best of all – have a powerful sense of control over your body. As you say, it’s a complex subject, but the fact you can influence something and feel well into the bargain must be a plus. I’ll post a link to your piece on our site Thanks…

  • Katherine Leiner 9·26·12

    I loved this article (although two of your links didn’t work: Blood sugar & 40+ elements). I think you are so right about changing your diet and the the ways in which we need to change our diet.
    AS Michael Pollan says, “Eat real food, not too much, mostly plants.” I like the idea of more raw in the summer and cooked in the fall and winter as the weather gets cold. I also like the idea of looking at our food as a defense, But I also feel that food that is grown without spray is far healthier…I think we probably get enough toxins just from the air and it’s great not to add any more than we have to. So thanks Harriet. And keep up the good work!

  • Fran McCullough 9·26·12

    A cancer patient for whom I deliver groceries – don’t know her diagnosis – always eats
    blueberries, Green & Black’s dark chocolate 82%, and Amy and Brian’s coconut juice.
    This per her cancer nutritionist. And I just learned about the research in Milan in the 80’s I believe – they were looking for health problems blind people have and discovered quite by accident that blind people don’t get cancer. It seems to have something to do with melatonin.
    This woman also takes 3 mg of sublingual melatonin every night. She seems to be holding her own so far…. She had no idea why she was taking melatonin, but when I mentioned that study to her, she was very excited.

  • Harriet Sugar Miller 9·27·12

    And thanks to all of you for your feedback. Fran, yes, the melatonin research is interesting (although conflicting with respect to ovarian cancer, my beast), and simple lifestyle changes can help you maximize production: Get an hour or so of sunlight daily. Remove electrical gadgets from around your bed (digital clocks, TVs, for example); they give off light and low level electromagnetic waves. And sleep in the dark (You thought I was going to say “nude”?)

  • michael dworkind 9·27·12


  • Joan Miller 9·28·12

    Loved the blog,well done and informative.I cheat too but try to be good most of the time.You are a very commited young lady.I am impressed,your picture is cute too.I like the broccoli connection as I have to eat more, to counter a higher cumiden no. serves two purposes. From old Auntie Joni

  • Brittany 10·3·12

    I don’t normally comment on articles, but this one resonated quite strongly. As a veggie living among carnivores, I too have seen the risks eating meat involves. I’ve also been convinced through my own research as well as a documentary entitled “Forks Over Knives” that diet and exercise are the best methods of prevention for a myriad of ailments. I had a great- aunt who had ovarian cancer. Sadly, she did not make it. I often wonder how many people could have overcome their ailments if they had simply refined their eating habits. It’s wonderful to only get sick once every few years as opposed to 2 or more times per year. I’m convinced it’s diet, has to be. Just wish I could bring myself to like cabbage… Broccoli’s great and so is kale, but there’s just something about cabbage…

  • Nancy Harmon Jenkins 10·4·12

    I’m glad the writer was able to get her cancers under control through diet. It’s a very complex subject, very little understood–for instance, the way certain vegetables and fats operate in synergy is something that needs more looking into. Also the role of polyphenols in regulating gene expression.
    But I was most struck by this comment re olive oil: “Use regular, not extra virgin, which smokes too easily.” I wonder where her information that extra-virgin olive oil smokes “too easily” comes from. Certainly most sources agree that ev olive oil’s smoke point is 210ºC. (well over 400ºF.) which strikes me as a good deal higher than anyone would want for cooking. And by not using ev olive oil, she is discounting the incredible variety of polyphenols that are in extra-virgin and not in regular oil, and that have an enormously important role to play in cancer protection–as well as in other catastrophic illnesses.

  • Harriet Sugar Miller 10·4·12

    I always use extra virgin olive oil when I’m using it cold but for sauteeing, which I don’t do often, my dietitian says regular is better because it smokes less easily. I’ll ask her again about that.

  • susan m caddell 10·10·12

    Donna, is a friend; discovered you thru her fb page.When home again, tho I know you’re very busy with family, would love opportunity to meet with you even briefly.
    I am a vigilant ‘fighter’ for my health…and others’.


  • Deb Browning 11·4·12

    Great information – easy for me to understand. Now, I’ve just got to do MY part and exercise some self-control. Knowledge is power, so a big thank you, Harriet!

  • BelindieG 11·5·12

    Eating organic red meat is a whole lot healthier than eating massive amounts of carbs. Seems like the usual veggie non-science.

  • Angi Bloom 11·19·12

    Taking charge is empowering. Thanks for inspiring so many take charge. If we eat more wisely 90 % of the time – bravo.

  • Fredericks 12·24·12

    I like your honesty Harriet.
    Like you I live a narrow, spartan, joyless life when it comes to food. It is Christmas eve and I spent it with my family and will have Christmas dinner with them tomorrow. I could beat myself up for having a glass of wine, and desert…….but the reality is………for 364 days a year I live a monastic life.

    I will return after Christmas to my regular diet. Like you, my oncologist says I have a slow growing cancer. Is it any wonder?

    I am going to the Medicore alternative cancer care clinic and am taking TM copper reduction treatment, and hopefully it will see me over this time of dietary weakness. Good luck and best wishes in your fight. When I feel I may be a bit too acidic I drink pure, squeezed lemon juice and toss a bit of stevia into it…and drink it like that to try to reset the scales.

  • Kashif Ansari 2·10·13

    lovely piece of diet advice you have given. vegetables are the last bastion when everything else has failed. they contain alkaloids and like their twin cousins fruits are known to contain certain unknown and as-yet undiscovered phytochemical antioxidant agents that help you in a number of ways. as for lean proteins fish and chicken not to mention hunt meat and seafood are ideal. dairy and grains are the culprits since they don’t match with our ancestral and primal diet dna. and as for sugar, coffee and salt they are anathema…the very reason behind the phenomena known as SAD or the standard american diet. believe me it makes you sad despite the temporary pleasure of a junk food junkie you get from it initially. better to eat what is good for the body and that is natural to the core. i don’t mean be a food fanatic but at least try and eat what your body was designed for and not the crapola the serve you on the canned goods/packages shelves in supermarkets. that will only mess you up for good.

  • janet mendelsohn moshe 5·1·13

    great article…do you also eat kohlrabi and fennel…wonder about their health benefits…I like them both sliced with fresh lemon juice…

  • Harriet Sugar Miller 12·6·13

    You’re in the money, Janet. Kohlrabi’s a crucifer, making it especially important for fighting cancer.

    Scientists at last month’s annual conference of the American Institute for Cancer Research recommended at least 4-5 servings of cruciferous vegetables a week.