Diet and Cancer

Dr Swami Vivekananda Saraswati, MBBS, DPM, MANZCP

Yoga is the means to quench the thirst for techniques that will overcome the ill-health and disease manifesting itself world-wide. The basis of this will be in a revision of our way of looking at the world and ourselves. Integrated with yoga is revision of our approach to food and other basic needs such as sleep, sexual activity and love.

One of the major causes of ill - health is the abuse of food in its many forms - too much, too fast, too soon. Probably the major dietary indiscretion is excess food, though we must be careful not to go to the other extreme of malnutrition. Balance is the key to health. Hippocrates said: "Everything in excess is opposed to nature."

This leads us to the field of natural living and what is the healthiest way to live. Some people declare that vegetarianism is the only natural way; others state that man has been eating meat from his earliest days so there's no reason for him to stop now. When we consider vegetarianism we are actually talking about a wide range of eating patterns. To some people, vegetarianism means strict abstinence from meat and all animal products, while to others it means simply minimising the amount of meat, fish, eggs and other flesh foods. All these philosophies are aiming at maximum health and all claim to give the most benefit.

To the yogi or tantric, all these claims are valid within the context of individual needs. Everyone has different requirements at more than just the physical level; mind and spirit must also be satisfied. In this context we can see the vegetarian diet to be the healthiest possible diet, admitting that for certain people a small quantity of meat may be a psychological necessity. Our definition of a healthy diet is one that satisfies the individual at all levels of his existence.

However, we should be alert to our requirements rather than imagined needs, and disease is one indicator that something is wrong. Cancer, the most extreme and tragic of modern illnesses, can be seen as the final 'red - light' warning from the body that our lifestyle and diet are somehow failing to meet our true requirements. Natural healers and advocates of vegetarian diet have for years warned of the dangers of dietary abuse, and evidence is coming together to show that diet plays a far larger role in cancer formation than we were previously led to believe.

Arlin J. Brown, physicist and director of the Arlin Brown Information Centre, in Fort Belvoir, Virginia, USA, stated in his monthly Cancer Victory Bulletin:

"until recently the AMA, FDA, NCI, and the National Academy of Sciences have insisted that nutrition has absolutely nothing to do with cancer... But after thirteen years of research and experience, this editor unequivocally declares that nutrition is the most important factor in the cause, prevention and permanent cure of cancer - and there is no second factor."

Although they are not quite as strident or enthusiastic as Brown, many other health organisations are also beginning to make, or give support to such claims. The opinion that diet is influential in the course of cancer has become more popular in even the more conservative sections of the community. The slogan 'natural is better' is the latest catch-cry to be pushed by the advertising media for natural and unnatural products alike, capitalising on growing public concern over the quality of food available. This concern stems from the various warnings issued by respected institutions such as the Harvard School of Public Health, where Dr D. Mark Hegsted told a US Senate Select Committee:

"The major causes of death and disability in the US are related to the diet we eat."

Dr Gio B. Gori, Deputy Director of the National Cancer Institute Division of Cancer Cause and Prevention (USA) has stated:

"Epidemiologic (environmental) and laboratory data suggest that diet is an important factor in the causation of various forms of cancer... improper diet is related to sixty percent of all cancers in men and forty-one percent in women."

For years now there has been a controversy raging about the role of specific cancer - causing substances (carcinogens) that are commonly found in the modern, particularly urban, environment. Scientists have compiled a long list of substances that have found their way from industry into our homes, the water we drink, the air we breathe - all of which have some connection with cancer. However, Dr Gori minimises the importance of the possible influence of particular carcinogens in the environment and even in processed foods. In his view, our whole attitude to nutrition is at fault:

"...nutritional deficiencies, and/or excesses, influence metabolic processes that, after many years of insult, result in the appearance of certain forms of cancer."

Statistics show that countries with the highest per capita consumption of meat also have the highest rates of cancer of all kinds - in the large intestine, colon, breast and uterus. These countries include the USA, Australia and parts of Europe. Cancer of the colon is associated with a low-roughage meat diet, often making a lethal appearance after years of constipation.

If we take two groups of people identical in terms of age, sex, place of residence, economic and social status and ethnic background, but differing only in dietary habits, then we have an ideal situation for examining the exact influence of diet on cancer. The Seventh Day Adventists in California, USA, constitute such a group. Their lives are identical to those of other Americans except that they do not smoke, do not drink alcohol and do not eat meat. Dr R. L. Phillips of Loma Linda University conducted a survey in 1975 that reveals that Seventh Day Adventists have a record of cancer that is only half that of the rest of the population. This survey conclusively shows that natural diet free from cigarettes, alcohol and meat is a far healthier diet in terms of cancer prevention, despite the same stresses from modern society.

Dr B. K. Armstrong of the University of Western Australia has also found that women on a vegetarian diet have a thirty percent lower mortality rate from breast cancer and forty percent less uterine cancer than women who eat meat.

Meat is one of the largest sources of fat in most diets, and fat intake has also been linked with cancer of the uterus. One study has compared the fat intake in twenty-eight countries with the cancer rate. The USA has both the greatest fat intake (150 grams per day, mostly from meat) and also the highest rate of cancer of the uterus. At the opposite pole, Nigerians consume only forty grams of fat per day i.e. less than one third of the American rate, and uterine cancer in Nigeria is a dramatic one - sixth of the rate in the USA.

Dr E. Wynder, president of the American Health Foundation, told a symposium as long ago as 1974 that tumour formation has been shown to be caused by the combination of animal fat in the diet, animal protein and intestinal flora (which differ in vegetarians and meat-eaters). There are also reports of evidence linking dietary fats to cancer of the breast, pancreas, kidney, ovary and prostate.

The link between nutrition and cancer has also found support from various laboratory studies. Dr Gori stated that "of all dietary modifications, caloric restriction... with a few exceptions, generally inhibits tumour formation". That is, if we eat less than the excessive amounts we have come to consider 'normal', then we have less likelihood of contracting cancer.

A more glamorous advocate for the role of vegetarian diets in helping to check cancer is the former movie-star Gloria Swanson. In the late 1940's she was diagnosed as having uterine cancer, and doctors recommended immediate surgery to remove her womb. Reluctant to take such drastic measures, even though her life was at stake, Miss Swanson consulted a nutritionist and on his advice adopted a whole foods diet consisting of grains, vegetables, a little fruit and no animal proteins. Despite her hectic acting and travelling lifestyle, tests conducted two and a half years later showed that Miss Swanson's tumour had completely disappeared. This experience transformed her into a firm supporter of vegetarianism, and she is now Commissioner of Youth and Physical Fitness for the city of New York, spending much of her time travelling to publicise the benefits of vegetarian diet.

At this ashram we have seen many people who have suffered from cancer. These people have used yoga, diet and willpower to overcome their disease. One woman currently staying with us, sixty-four years old, was diagnosed as having incurable cancer of the light kidney. That was eight years ago, and she was given less than one year to live. She changed her diet to vegetables, fruit and whole wheat bread only, and this, combined with a yogic lifestyle, has given her the good health and enthusiasm to travel around the world without difficulty. She says that she feels fit and active, and copes well with the rigors of ashram life.

Another perspective is that the consumption of 'empty calories' in the form of processed, artificially flavoured and coloured foods with excessive quantities of white sugar and white flour also contributes to degenerative diseases such as cancer. By eating meals based on these synthetic foods and meat, people fail to eat adequate amounts of grain and vegetables. Thus we find that people in affluent countries are eating too much, but are actually suffering from just another form of malnutrition. Despite their prosperity, these people are literally starving themselves of good, nourishing food. They may also be laying themselves open to cancer, for fruit and vegetables are necessary for the maintenance of the body's systems, including the immunological mechanism that kills cancer cells before they can multiply and spread.

The question of cancer is difficult and vexed, carrying a high emotional charge. When one weighs up the evidence, it seems certain that excessive meat intake is related to some forms of cancer. Evidence points to the fact that vegetarians have a better chance of avoiding cancer than people who eat meat. The choice is up to you. Incorporate diet and yogic techniques and you gain the best of all worlds. Yoga increases your awareness, relaxation and ability to enjoy food and life, and also maintains health. Through yoga, your mind becomes strong and your body develops the digestive fire which burns up all the poisons entering your system. Combine this with a pure and sensible diet and you will live happily with maximum energy and vitality.