Your Life and Cancer 2020

January 2021

Conference Report by Dafydd Charles

Your Life and Cancer is an annual online event for everyone who is affected by cancer. I attended the 2020 conference over four days last autumn. It is designed to aid cancer treatment, enhance quality of life, and improve possible outcomes.  The focus of the 2020 event was on the broad topic of Integrative Medicine for preventing and treating cancer. This is a healing-oriented medicine that takes account of the whole person, including all aspects of lifestyle (including diet, exercise and mental health). It emphasizes the therapeutic relationship between practitioner and patient, is informed by evidence, and makes use of all appropriate therapies. What is advocated here is intended to complement ‘conventional’ treatment – none of the speakers advocated ‘alternative’ approaches outside the NHS.

Although not focussed on prostate cancer, there was a lot of information and insight scattered among the 26 presentation by subject experts. What I’ve done here is to pick out those talks that I think are most relevant to us, whether we have recently been diagnosed, in the middle of treatment or after discharge back to our GPs.

Lifestyle changes to improve your cancer care Prof Rob Thomas (Consultant Oncologist at Addenbrooke’s, Bedford, Cranfield and Cambridge)

This was the keynote talk. 3 to 4 hours of moderate exercise has been seen to reduce the likelihood of recurrence of cancer by 30 to 40%. Exercise results in over 80 biochemical changes in the body, which is actually higher than most treatments can achieve! Turmeric has been found to be beneficial during all types of treatment and ‘fine tunes’ our immune system to work at its peak efficiency. Foods that can reduce systemic inflammation (such as colourful vegetables and fruit, whole grains and health fats such as olive oil) reduce the load on our immune system. Food containing vitamins D and C are especially good for us, though most people would need to supplement their vitamin D intake as it is not found in significant quantities in our food and getting enough sunshine is often a particular problem in the UK in winter. Psychological stress is something that we should all take seriously, as it also reduces the efficiency of our immune system.

Exploring the role of the gut biome in health Dr Carol Granger (Registered nutrition practitioner, University of Westminster)

The importance of the health of our digestive system is something that has become increasingly recognised. There are more bacteria cells in our gut than in the rest of our body, and the way they help us to digest our food is a key factor in the health of our immune system. It’s important to protect the diversity of our gut contents during treatment – for example when we are given antibiotics – as it’s been estimated that 80% of our immunity comes directly from our gut. Good foods to eat are whole grains, mushrooms, fresh vegetables and fruit, as these contain different types of fibre that support a wide range of bugs. Eating these regularly will help those of us recovering from prostate cancer – it’s not just in helping to prevent colon cancer. Small changes to our diet are well worth making.

Managing fear and taking care of our mental health, talks by Sophie Sabbage and Dr Lauren Macdonald

These were two very moving speakers that are both living with Stage 4 cancer. Sophie Sabbage believes very strongly that our health services (though under great pressure as they are currently) should recognise that the sense of fear that we all experience after receiving a cancer diagnosis is something that is of primary importance to deal with. She illustrated this starkly by referring to the astonishing prevalence of having a heart attack in the first few weeks after cancer diagnosis. Fear needs to be treated as well as the disease itself, and ironically, we can create within us the very thing we fear (panic and loss of control). She has written a best-selling book on the subject, The Cancer Whisperer, which I have found to be very helpful. Lauren Macdonald also discussed the importance of emotional support and health. The stress response is a natural reaction that we feel in our minds and bodies, but in humans the stress is very often not ‘switched off’ after the event that causes it initially, as it does in animals. Relatively simple practices that relax the body, such as slow breathing, can have a significant impact on the level of our stress hormones. As was mentioned earlier, this in turn can boost our immune system.

Radical Remission: 10 healing factors that change the story about cancer Dr Kelly Turner (researcher and psychotherapist in integrative oncology)

Kelly Turner recent conducted a research study involving over a thousand cancer patients that had done much better than had been predicted by their doctors and identified nine lifestyle factors that all had used to some degree, along with exercise where this was practicable for the patient to practise. It’s easy to dismiss this sort of thing as sensationalism, but the principles (to me, anyway) are sound enough, and are supported by the evidence on outcomes. Of the nine key factors she identified, you may be surprised to learn that only two involve what you eat (changing your diet and adding herbs and supplements). The others involve changes in our attitude, motivation, our ‘philosophy of life’ and managing our distress. Heady stuff indeed. Dr Turner has written up her findings in the widely read book, Radical Remission – surviving cancer against all the odds. A little bit ‘American’ in its enthusiasm for my taste (if I can say that!), but very interesting, nevertheless.

The role of cannabinoids in cancer care, Prof Mike Barnes

This is a controversial topic I know, but there is increasing evidence that the active substances found in the cannabis plant can, if used in a targeted way, have a very positive role on ‘regulating’ our immune system and therefore helping us to fight cancer. The active substances are CBD, which is legal and non-psychoactive, and THC, which is illegal in the UK and psycho-active (which is why cannabis is used recreationally, of course). It is a great shame that more research hasn’t been carried out on the medical benefits of cannabis – this has been due to its association with illegal drug-taking – as there is reasonable evidence that it can help cancer patients. This includes, causing cancer cell death, blocking cancer cell growth, stopping the development of blood vessels that tumours need to grow and reducing inflammation, which is an important factor in cancer spreading. CBD, in particular, has been used successfully to reduce pain and nausea, and also anxiety. Mike Barnes emphasised the need to be careful about the quality of the material you may consider taking and checking any interaction with existing medication.

The crucial role of hormones Dr Nasha Winters

We know that prostate cancer is driven by the hormone testosterone, so this topic was a very illuminating one. Nasha Winters identified the three ‘Ss’ as being important – Sex (testosterone), Sugar (stimulates the production of the hormone insulin, which can promote cancer in some circumstances) and Stress (the hormones adrenaline and cortisol produced when we are stressed lower our immune response and increase blood sugar levels). Lowering our body fat, taking Vitamin D and exercising regularly help to restore a healthier balance of hormones in the body and work against cancer.

Nutrition and the Fast-Mimicking Diet Dr Valter Longo

Valter Longo, who works at the University of Southern California, has been carrying out research for many years on the effect of diet on longevity and the ‘western’ diseases of cancer, diabetes, arthritis and other autoimmune diseases and obesity. He has found that limiting our intake of animal proteins, together with the times of the day we eat, can have a significant effect on our health. Restricting these in a controlled way can even cause cancer cells to become more identifiable to our immune system and to chemotherapy, and therefore works against cancer. It also gives the body time to devote some attention to its ‘housekeeping’ activities of weeding out damaged cells – away from the job of digesting our food. It’s been found that it is especially good to restrict our food intake to 8 hours a day rather than ‘grazing’ over a longer period, and there is emerging evidence that fasting before chemotherapy sessions can both reduce unpleasant side-effects (of which there are many, of course) and increase the toxicity of the treatment on the cancer being targeted. This is a very exciting area for researchers to explore further.

Overall, I found the many interesting topics covered by this conference to be relevant to my own concern of doing everything I can (within reason!) to minimise my chances of having a recurrence. At the end I felt very inspired and empowered!