Updated 10 June 2014

Cancer – a metabolic disease

Cancer is a word that strikes fear into the hearts of many. This dreaded disease has become increasingly common all over the world because of our modern lifestyle.

In part, this increase is due to improved diagnostic capabilities, but cancer has also become increasingly common because of issues with our modern lifestyle.

“Lifestyle changes could prevent 50% of common cancer.”

This profound statement was made by a researcher from Washington University School of Medicine  at the World Cancer Congress, held in Montreal, Canada in 2012. He presented research that reveals that a number of interventions, mostly involving lifestyle behaviours, could prevent a large proportion of cancers over a 15 to 20 year period.

Lifestyle modification and cancer prevention

The message from eminent scientists working in the field of cancer prevention is clear: the best way of fighting cancer is prevention, and lifestyle modification offers simple and cost-effective prevention options.  
The article, “Is there a role for carbohydrate restriction in the treatment and prevention of cancer?” was published in the peer-reviewed journal, Nutrition & Metabolism in 2011. The authors, two German oncologists, point out that over the years there has been growing evidence to suggest that the emergence of cancer could be suppressed, or at the least delayed, by eliminating or reducing the consumption of sugar and other refined carbohydrates. Even where cancer already exists, this approach could still delay the growth of new cancer cells.

The inherent mitochondrial dysfunction (problems with the conversion of food into energy) of cancer cells means that they can only use glucose for energy, whereas healthy cells can use glucose, fatty acids and ketone bodies. Glucose is primarily derived from carbohydrate in the diet, while ketones are derived from fats. High blood glucose levels are associated with high levels of insulin and insulin growth factor-1, and these, when present together, seem to promote the process where normal cells are transformed into cancer cells. Ketones, on the other hand, have been shown in so-called ketogenic diets, to have anti-tumour properties.

Professor Thomas Seyfried , a cancer researcher and author of the text book, Cancer as a Metabolic Disease, is also of the opinion that mitochondrial dysfunction is the trigger activating oncogenes (genes that have the potential to cause cancer) as well as inactivating the genes that suppress the formation of tumours. In other words, the metabolic dysfunction that is associated with the diseases of metabolic syndrome, is the very same underpinning cause of cancer.

In Professor Seyfried’s view this means we should treat and prevent cancer by keeping blood glucose and insulin levels as close to normal as is possible. In turn, this means cutting out sugar and refined carbohydrate from our diets. That’s it.

But can the solution to many cancers be as simple as this?  Yes, says  Dr Craig Thompson, CEO of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Centre in New York, who when speaking to a group of high school students about the link between excess sugar in the diet and cancer, said that sugar supplies the nutrients that tell the cancer cells to divide.

How can you reduce your risk of cancer?

The clinical evidence is clear that there is much that we can do to prevent many cancers from developing. This includes:

Stopping smoking

Smoking cessation is perhaps the most impactful lifestyle intervention amongst middle and high income earners, as about a third of all cancer is associated with tobacco smoking in these groups.

Maintaining or regaining a healthy weight

Simply being overweight or obese currently causes about 20% of cancer. Reducing body mass index (BMI) to normal has the potential of reducing cancer by 50% over a two to 20 year period. Improvements in diet and physical activity could reduce cancer incidence by as much as 85% in five to 20 years. Evidence presented at the World Cancer Congress also suggests that weight loss in excess of 9kg in post-menopausal women is associated with a 50% reduction in breast cancer risk over a two to 20 year period.


Other lifestyle related interventions include ensuring immunisation against those viruses known to be associated with cancer, especially the human papillomavirus (HPV) and Hepatitis B and C. Broad-scale immunisation against these viruses could lead to a 100% reduction in viral-related cancer over a 20 to 40 year period!

Screening for common cancers such as colon and breast cancer means that these largely treatable cancers can be detected early, and mortality rates can be reduced. Speak to your doctor about when you should begin having routine scans, and the appropriate cancer screenings for your risk factors.

If you would like help to modify your lifestyle and reduce your risk of developing the chronic lifestyle diseases associated with Metabolic Syndrome, visit a Dis-Chem pharmacy, get tested and get help. Met-S Care works with Dis-Chem Pharmacies to empower people living with Metabolic Syndrome to take control of their condition.