Is There a Fast Way to Reduce Cancer Risk?

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Here’s a quick quiz. How many of the following statements do you think are true?
1. Fasting is bad for you.
2. If you don’t eat regularly you’ll get low blood sugar and feel tired
3. You can’t exercise if you’re fasting.
4. You must eat breakfast to ‘kick start’ your metabolism.
5. Losing weight is simple a case of energy in, energy out; reduce the amount of food you eat and increase the amount of exercise you do and you are guaranteed to lose weight.
6. Fasting will promote binge eating.
7. Fasting will promote eating disorders.
8. Going hungry will make it difficult for you to concentrate.
9. You can’t sleep if you’re hungry.
10. Weight gain is unavoidable with age.
11. Losing weight means giving up food you love.
12. Over weight people are just making excuses because they are greedy.

For me, cancer has been a lesson in holding my opinions lightly. So many things that I was sure of have been flipped. The most recent example is fasting.

I can remember a friend trying to convince me of the benefits of fasting over ten years ago. I dismissed her arguments and ‘new age nonsense’ and put fasting in the same basket as alkaline and ketogenic diets. I’m a skeptic. I need evidence.

Then a couple of months ago when we were channel surfing I found a story on the Sunday Night program about intermittent fasting. It included an interview with Dr Michael Mosely who made a documentary for the BBC a couple of years back following his investigation of fasting. With Mimi Spencer, he wrote a book about what he discovered. Here’s a link with a pretty good description:

http://www.booktopia.com.au/the-fast-diet-mimi-spencer/prod9781780721675.html?source=pla&gclid=CjwKEAjwtIShBRD08fKD1OWSik4SJAAuKLovgENgBkfcr5B9jRV2vQjPVCEN_BsMJA6t1GlDkSfwohoCn1vw_wcB

I gained about ten kilos during chemotherapy and at the time it was a source of distress. My beautiful daughter reminded me that my body was fighting cancer and that I shouldn’t worry about extra weight. She was right. I stopped obsessing about it.

I also got back into my daily yoga habit. You can’t downward dog on a full stomach so postponing breakfast became normal. I usually eat what I call my ‘super porridge’ around 10.30am. I’ve also been tired so I’ve been eating dinner around 6.30pm and going to bed early. Without planning to I’ve been creating a much longer gap between my last meal and my first meal. Two things have happened. The weight that I gained during chemotherapy has gradually disappeared  (not counting the two kilos they removed from my chest!), and my appetite has reduced to the point where I rarely feel particularly hungry and I never feel ravenous.

Without intending to, I’ve been adopting one of the behaviours that research now tells us can permanently reduce weight and improve health. I’ve created a ‘fasting window’.

It occurred to me that I was naturally thin when I was younger. My weight problems came during pregnancy when I was told I MUST eat breakfast. Up until then it was my habit to have coffee in the morning and not to eat until lunch. While I was breastfeeding there was also the breakfast mantra. Now it seems the experts were wrong. Or perhaps more accurately, the advice was incomplete.

If you’re a ‘breakfast person’ then you should eat it. If you’re not then you shouldn’t feel guilty about skipping it. And regardless of your age or your weight, it seems that fasting is good for most people.

What’s most appealing to me about this way of eating is the rigorous science behind it. Most diets work for some people for some of the time until, almost inevitably, they regain the weight they lost (and then some). This diet involves a permanent change in eating behaviour that most people find relatively easy and sustainable. You won’t just lose your saddle bags and your muffin top. You’ll also drop the fat that’s around your major organs and this weight loss has all kinds of health benefits, including a reduction in your risk of developing diabetes.

Eating this way gives my body time to repair itself. When we eat our body manufactures new cells. When we fast for long enough it triggers our ‘repair mode’ and the body not only draws on our fat stores for fuel, it also cleans up damaged and unwanted cells. You can imagine what exciting news this is for anyone prone to cancer. My damaged cells can kill me.

We now know that most of us have cells with the potential to become cancer circulating our bodies all of the time. Yes, when I say ‘most of us’ I mean potentially any human on the planet and not just those of us with a history of this disease. In order for these damaged cells to become tumours they need to trick the body into providing them with a blood supply.

Of course, most of these cells get killed off by the body as part of our normal process of cell rejuvenation. Now it seems that intermittent fasting boosts this process. That means that changing the way we eat could have huge benefits for cancer patients.

Fasting also increases our white blood cell count and boosts our immune system. It helps to reduce insulin type growth factor, which is important because high levels have been shown to correlate with a higher risk of cancer. Here’s an article summarising some recent research:

http://news.nationalpost.com/2014/06/05/fasting-for-three-days-renews-entire-immune-system-protects-cancer-patients-remarkable-new-study-finds/

After checking the research I am convinced that intermittent fasting has the potential to reduce my risk of recurrence. My husband was also keen to try a 5:2 diet to lose the extra kilos that he’s put on during the last year so about six weeks ago we both started limiting our calories for two days a week.

We chose Tuesdays and Thursdays as our ‘fast days’. You can choose two consecutive days but most people find this harder than breaking them up. On fast days, Graham likes to have breakfast which is usually some kind of vegetarian omelette. I prefer to save my 500 calories for one meal at dinner time. I’ve found that it’s easier to not eat at all during the day. I love that this way of eating is so flexible and that you can adjust it to suit your preferences.

Dinner on fast days is a big pile of low starch vegetables (leave out the potatoes and corn) topped with a small serve of protein. We often have fish because it’s low in calories and I don’t eat enough of it. We’ve also had eggs, tofu, organic chicken and grass fed organic lamb or beef.

Graham gets 600 calories by virtue of his gender which means that once he’s had breakfast I’ve got plenty of room to make us both a delicious dinner.

So how are we going?

Well, a girlfriend came to visit me this weekend to take me out to my favourite restaurant as a late birthday treat. I sat enjoying the view out the window of the ocean and tucked into my goats cheese tart with duck breast followed by a giant pork chop with heaps of vegetables and thought “This has got to be the best diet EVER!”

When my daughter turned 21 I finally admitted to myself that the in spite of all the dieting and exercising I was just going to have to live with ten extra kilos for the rest of my life. I did, once, manage to get back within my BMI by attending weekly Weight Watchers meetings and obsessively measuring and counting everything but I was so miserable that it was unsustainable. What a great business model they have; any loss is their credit and any gain is your fault!

My daughter has a similar metabolism. I’ve seen her eat like a bird and train like an athlete only to be distressed by the lack of any movement on the scales.

The thing I love the most about The Fast Diet is that it has finally exploded the whole ‘energy in-energy out’ myth of dieting. Ask anyone whose battled their weight long term or any honest personal trainer and they will tell you that it’s just not that simple. Traditional dieting ultimately makes people fatter.

What’s worse than the lack of results on the scale are the thin people that spout “You just need to eat less and exercise more!” as if you weren’t already doing that. The implication that you are just being untruthful about your vigilance is offensive and demoralising. You give up. You eat a bar of chocolate. You may as well, because people assume you are anyway.

So you can imagine my excitement when (drum roll please) the scales showed my pre-pregnancy weight! I’m so happy I’ve become evangelical. We are not ‘big boned’. We do not have ‘a slow metabolism’. We are not weak, lazy, self delusional or greedy.

The first couple of weeks of fasting required some commitment and a bit of effort but it was much easier than I expected it to be. Yes, I was hungry. So what. Every diet I’ve ever tried required me to feel hungry but I was required to feel it every bloody day! Two days a week? No problem!

What makes it really easy to get through fast days is this phrase: “I’ll eat that tomorrow.”

You see, the wonderful thing about The Fast Diet is that you don’t count or restrict anything on your other days. Yes, you read that correctly. No calorie counting. No portion control. No using matchboxes or your palm to measure serving sizes of the food you love. The authors recommend that you eat a healthy diet most of the time which is high in vegetables, includes some fruit and good quality protein but you can also include occasional serves of the foods that are usually forbidden.

I’m thinner than I’ve been in twenty two years and I did it while eating pizza, French cheeses, gourmet dinners, decadent desserts and the occasional hand full of potato chips. On the recommendation of the authors via their Facebook page we suspended fasting over Christmas, both gained a couple of kilos and then lost them when we fasted the following week. You can see why they call this ‘The Foodies Diet’.

I have other reasons for eating well most of the time. I know that good quality whole foods can contribute to my health and reduce my risk of occurrence. I also know that eating well affects my mood, my energy and my appearance. But The Fast Diet means that I can finally enjoy food again without any guilt. I can have an evening out at a beautiful restaurant and not use kilojoules or fat content as a criteria for menu choices. For someone like me who loves fine dining this is close to miraculous.

Apart from the weight loss I think this way of eating helps to educate your subconscious; hunger is not going to kill me.  Like other people on this diet, I find that hunger does not increase throughout my fast days. It comes in waves. It peaks and subsides and it’s no worse at the end of the day than it was in the morning. It’s about as uncomfortable as a small stone stuck in the bottom of your shoe. Mildly annoying. Not more than that.

This is not a starve and binge strategy. Although I expected to be hungry the day after a fast day I actually stuck to my usual routine of a late breakfast. I have found that I am just not as hungry as I used to be and that I naturally eat less. Although I had no hesitation in ordering a pork chop for lunch I chose not to eat all of it and I passed on dessert. On purpose. My choice.

I’ve also lost my sweet tooth, perhaps because fasting has starved the sugar-eating bacteria in my gut. (Another recent Catalyst program explained that this bacteria can signal our brain to crave more sugar.) The research confirms that people don’t overeat after a fast day. That’s part of why this strategy works so well.

For the first few weeks, fast days were a challenge. I avoided anywhere that sold or stored food (including my kitchen) and kept myself busy doing things I enjoyed. I slept late and went to bed early in order to shorten the day. I felt occasionally ravenous but then I would distract myself with something, have a nice big drink of water and the feeling would pass. It reminded me of giving up smoking.

Now to my surprise I actually enjoy fast days. Apart from being seriously impressed with the results (12 kilos gone and counting) I find I have plenty of energy, I think clearly and I don’t ever suffer from ‘low blood sugar’ fatigue, which, it turns out, is just one more dieting myth that this research has exploded. Think about it. You go to bed every night and go without food for seven or eight or nine hours. You can usually add in the couple of hours you didn’t eat before you went to bed. Do you wake up feeling light headed because of low blood sugar? Ironic that this diet might be the way to avoid diabetes.

Some of the recent research is showing that athletes actually perform better if they fast before competition. The guy that wrote the book on ‘carb loading’ is now apologising and advocating a different approach. It makes sense that as an animal reliant upon hunting to provide our food, fasting would trigger improved athletic performance.

I’ve only got another two or three kilos to go and then I’ll cut down to one fast day a week for the rest of my life. It’s clear that this is one way I can actively help my body to avoid cancer in the future.

If you’re interested, here’s a great article by Michael Mosely:

http://www.independent.ie/life/health-wellbeing/the-fast-way-to-lose-weight-live-healthily-and-fight-ageing-30600623.html

5:2 is not the only way to fast. Some people find it easier to limit their eating to an eight hour window each day. This is usually referred to as the 8:16 diet. You might, for example, have your first meal of the day at 11.00am and your last meal at 7.00pm. Eating this way gives your body a fasting window where it can switch to repair mode. The biggest difference with 8:16 is that you need to eat this way every day (some people take one day off a week) for the rest of your life. It’s a personal choice whether you prefer 5:2.

There’s also the option of doing a three day continuous fast every month. If you prefer this, you need to be aware that this is a serious fast and not just the calorie restriction you get on the 5:2 diet. Most people doing a three day fast have only water or herbal tea. Some have clear soup or broth. I know people that combine a monthly fast with some kind of spiritual practice such as a retreat, meditation, yoga or prayer. It’s about a lot more than diet for them, but a spiritual aspect is not a requirement. I think the most difficult thing about three day fasting is fitting it into your life. Few of us can walk away from our lives for three days every month and trying to maintain an extreme fast while friends, family and co-workers are enjoying meals would be difficult.

I’ll probably do a three day fast a couple of times a year for the health benefits.

Regardless of which model you choose, fasting is good for you.

I’ll add my usual caution here. If you’re currently having treatment then discuss any diet changes with your doctor and please, do your own research. If you’re having chemotherapy then it’s worth googling ‘chemotherapy and fasting’. There is evidence that fasting might help to make chemotherapy less toxic to the body and more effective. Ironically, the chronic nausea and loss of appetite could be part of the reason chemotherapy works at all.

If you sent me a message saying you had just been diagnosed and asking my advice then part of my response would include a recommendation that you fast for three days. If I could go back in time that’s what I would do. It’s possible that fasting might just help our bodies to fight active cancer.

This is a fascinating area of research and one I’ll be keeping an eye on.

So here’s a short list of the ideas I’ve now consigned to the rubbish bin:

1. Fasting is bad for you.
2. If you don’t eat regularly you’ll get low blood sugar and feel tired
3. You can’t exercise if you’re fasting.
4. You must eat breakfast to ‘kick start’ your metabolism.
5. Losing weight is simple a case of energy in, energy out; reduce the amount of food you eat and increase the amount of exercise you do and you are guaranteed to lose weight.
6. Fasting will promote binge eating.
7. Fasting will promote eating disorders.
8. Going hungry will make it difficult for you to concentrate.
9. You can’t sleep if you’re hungry.
10. Weight gain is unavoidable with age.
11. Losing weight means giving up food you love.
12. Over weight people are just making excuses because they are greedy.

All of these are WRONG. Imagine my delighted surprise!

 

Fear of Recurrence: Part 4 (Mindfulness)

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I sometimes wonder if the people that developed Acceptance Commitment Therapy (ACT) based their model on Buddhist or yogic philosophy. There’s some striking similarities. One of the most obvious is the use of mindfulness as a technique.

It seems that mindfulness, all on its own, is enjoying a popularity surge at the moment. It’s the subject of books, TED talks and articles. Most people are at least passingly familiar with the idea of being present, paying attention to what’s right in front of you, or around you, rather than the chatter that’s going on in your mind.

When you’re dealing with the fear of a serious illness returning, mindfulness brings you from your fears about the future all the way back to the present. It reconnects you with the activities you enjoy and the people that you care about. In the context of ACT, it helps you to turn your attention to your values, and to take action consistent with those values.

Russ Harris explains that when you’re dealing with a distressing event (or you’re upsetting yourself by imagining one) mindfulness is not a relaxation technique but a way to anchor yourself.

Here’s a simple mindfulness exercise. As you’re reading this, pay attention to the device that’s displaying it. Look at the different textures on the surfaces of that device. Are they reflective or dull? What colour? What brand? Are you holding the device in your hand and, if so, what does it feel like? Or if it’s on a surface in front of you, what is that surface. What is it made from? Now look around the device. What can you see? What can you hear? What can you smell?

If you’re similar to me then mindfulness exercises feel like moving out of your head and back into your body. I have a mild sense of waking up or reconnecting with my world. Please don’t misunderstand me. There’s nothing wrong with using imagination to create dreams, explore ideas, imagine possibilities. The aim is not to be mindful all of the time, but to spend more time being mindful.

One of the easiest ways to do this is to focus on your own breathing. Try this now and then use it the next time you start scaring yourself with thoughts of illness or death. Put one hand on your chest and the other on your belly. Take five gently breaths and focus on your exhale being longer than your inhale. (This also helps to prevent you hyperventilating. Suck in too much oxygen and you definitely will not feel calmer.) Breathe through your nose if you can. Notice how your breath feels cooler going in and warmer going out. Try to breathe all the way down to the hand on your belly. Notice the way your hands rise and fall with your breath. Hold yourself gently and kindly.

As you do this, remember that you’re not trying to get rid of your anxiety. You’re just trying to anchor yourself during a storm. Those difficult thoughts and feelings will keep trying to frighten you. Notice them. Thank your mind for trying to warn you and protect you. Recognise what a great story teller you are.

Now shift your focus to your five senses. What can you taste? Many people experience a metallic taste when they’re stressed. What can you hear? You might not be able to hear anything other than your own heart or breathing or you might be able to hear music, or birds, or traffic. Just notice it without judgement. What can you smell? What can you feel? It might be just the air on your skin or the places where your body comes into contact with your chair and your clothing or you might notice the air temperature or a breeze. Finally, what can you see? Look around you and notice the detail. Where are you?

I think that part of the reason yoga and meditation are so good for reducing anxiety is that they both incorporate mindfulness. It’s a powerful way to put ourselves back into the present moment. When applied to ACT, mindfulness also allows us to think about what it is that we really value, and what type of action would make our lives more meaningful. Nobody expects you to come up with strategic plans while you’re frantic about the future but mindfulness can give you, quite literally, the breathing space you need.

Once you’ve weathered the storm you can revisit your values and put together plans to achieve things that are consistent with them. You’ll probably keep having scary thoughts. Cancer is terrifying! But these techniques will help you to have a rewarding and meaningful life in spite of your fears.

I don’t plan on writing a post about how to make plans and carry them out. I think most people are now very familiar with the SMART model and ACT incorporates it as part of the ‘Commitment’ part of the acronym. Here’s a link to the Wikipedia entry if you’re not already using SMART or you can google ‘SMART planning model’ for more information:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SMART_criteria

There’s whole books written on this model and there’s no doubt that people using it are generally far more likely to achieve their goals than those that don’t but this is not universally true. Not everyone needs or wants a structured planning model and critics would argue that being too structured can blind you to the surprises and opportunities that life puts in front of us. I suppose the acid test is how effective you already are at setting and achieving goals. If you feel like you’re going around and around in circles then I’d recommend going through the SMART process, writing things down and then checking in regularly to measure your success. Like so much of life, the key is to actually DO rather than just understand.

Even if you think you’re pretty good at achieving your goals I’d encourage you to give the SMART model a try. You might find that it helps you to take effective action and to achieve more than you already do. I used to use SMART in a work setting and find that after years of use I now naturally slip into this framework when I want to achieve something. Revisiting it from the perspective of ACT has made me keen to try using it for something other than work. I’ve always been a lot more ‘free form’ in my personal life, perhaps because work was so structured.

This is the end of my four part series on dealing with fear of recurrence and I hope you’ve found it useful. ACT is a collection of interrelated tools that have been proven to be very effective in dealing with everything from PTSD to giving up addictions. For me, learning about this model and putting these methods into practice has resulted in a significant improvement in my life. I am calmer, happier and clearer about what I want my life to stand for. Even though ACT practitioners are very clear that the model is not designed to reduce or eliminate troubling thoughts, I have, like many people, noticed a reduction in them as a side benefit of practicing these techniques. I’ve also found that Russ’s book for couples ‘ACT with Love’, has strengthened my marriage and increased my considerable love and affection for my husband.

If you’ve read about ACT and thought it was too simple, or too difficult or just not you then I’d encourage you to at least try some of the techniques. It’s possible that you’re right. It’s also possible that you just might expand your skills and improve your life. Surely that’s worth a bit of your time.

Here once again is the link to Russ’s web site.

http://www.actmindfully.com.au

I would highly recommend his book ‘The Reality Gap’ to anyone facing a cancer diagnosis or dealing with significant anxiety about anything. Just remember that reading the book and expecting your life to change is like reading a cook book and expecting to eat. ACT only works if you do it. Yes, some of it will feel awkward and strange and even a bit stupid but that’s how you’re always going to feel any time you’re brave enough to try something new.

As I write all of this I’m thinking about 2015. It’s the first day of that year. I love the new year. For me it’s always a time of reflection and gratitude. It’s also when I decide on what I’m carrying forward and what I’m leaving behind. I spent this morning reducing my Facebook ‘friends’ list down to those people that I actually spend real time with and those that I would spend real time with if they lived closer. Gone are the friends of friends, the occasional acquaintances and the people I never really knew at all. ‘Unliked’ are all those pages that push stuff into my timeline and eat up the first couple of hours of my day. This is all part of a desire to spend less time online and more time leading my new, improved and very valued life.

Cancer has made one thing very clear. My time on earth is limited. The most important question I can ask myself is ‘How do you want to spend that time?’ For me, this year will involve more yoga, more painting, more cello, more gardening and, most importantly, more face to face time with the people that I love. I’ll be spending less time ‘liking’ or ‘commenting’ on the posts of people that probably wouldn’t invite me to a party if they threw one. Facebook is a wonderful tool for communicating with lots of people but it has become a time vampire. I suspect I may have become just a little bit addicted to it. Time to get back to life. Nothing takes you away from mindfulness as quickly as Facebook.

I wish I had never had cancer but I am very grateful for the person I’ve become because of it. Thank you to all of you that have shared the roller coaster with me. Thank you for your time, your comments, your kindness and your advice. My plan is to live until I’m 86 and to never ever have cancer ever ever ever again. Wish me luck.

 

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