The Best Anti Cancer Diet

I get more questions about diet than anything else. People want to know if they should give up sugar, go paleo, fast, quit saturated fat or just eat whatever they want on the basis that it can’t make a whole lot of difference.

In a world where it’s now possible to make a living out of giving other people dietary advice it’s difficult to sort fact from fiction. Most of the ‘evidence’ is anecdotal; this person quit sugar and has never felt better; that person ‘went paleo’ and beat their allergies. There’s no question that some of these people have achieved what seems to be better health by changing the way they eat, but have they reduced their risk of cancer? And how will we know what the longer term impact of these diets is likely to be without experimenting on ourselves?

Well meaning people have sent me links to articles from Dr Mercola and David Avocado Wolf, along with contributions to a whole range of ‘natural health’ sites. My first reaction is always to google the author and to add the word ‘fraud’ to the search. What I find is not encouraging. Of course the conspiracy theorists then counter claim that these authors are being undermined by big pharma or food manufacturers with a vested interest. These claims are not without foundation. A recent, reputable article provided evidence that the sugar industry intentionally marketed saturated fat as the dietary bad guy in order to distract us from damaging findings about sugar:

How the sugar industry shifted blame to fat

There’s also reasonable and serious concern about the ethics involved in research. Much of it is sponsored by organisations with a vested interest in the outcome and you’ve got to wade through the academic language to read it, or rely upon someone else’s often inaccurate interpretation. What to do?

The best dietary advice I ever had came from my friend, Cat, who said, ‘You need to find out what works best for your body.’

It may well be that excluding certain types of foods has a big impact on your health. Someone close to me recently tried the FODMAP protocol with the support of a dietician and discovered a fructose intolerance. Yes, that means she can’t eat apples! Just about every healthy diet I’ve ever seen includes apples but for her they’re a disaster.

I’ve recently found a nutrition site that appears to be well researched and presents health information via clear, plain english videos:

Nutrition Facts

But even this site has nothing about intermittent fasting, which I believe is helping me to avoid recurrence and manage my weight. There’s also a problem with sites like this: It’s easy to become so overwhelmed with all of the advice that you just throw your hands in the air and break out the tim tams.

For those interested in my personal opinion on how best to avoid cancer I’m going to give you a summary. I offer it with the following disclaimers:

  1. While I have done everything I can to verify my choices using research I allow that future research might disprove anything I’ve read so far. I also allow that I have no way to verify the authenticity of any research. At some point you just have to decide to trust it. Also, I’m not a doctor.
  2. What works for me may not work for you. The two best measures of a diet are how well you feel on a day to day basis (this is fairly easy to determine) and how well you are over time (much more difficult).
  3. Diet is a major part of staying well but it is not the only factor. Please also consider your stress levels, your environmental exposure to things that may have a negative impact on your health, the quality of your sleep, the amount and type of exercise you get and the quality of the relationships you have with other people. These matter too.

Eating to reduce the risk of cancer

So here’s my current best advice for reducing the future risk of cancer and staying well. I hope it helps you to make some positive changes.

  1. Eat more plants than anything else
    A plant based diet consistently demonstrates a range of benefits to human health. Leafy greens are the only prebiotic proven to improve gut health and most of the food candidates for ensuring human health at a cellular level belong to this food group. Legumes show up as a major dietary component in every culture on earth that demonstrates unusual longevity. Fruits and vegetables are particularly important for forming healthy (non cancerous) cells, and for triggering the death of damaged (potentially cancerous) cells. Nuts and mushrooms are both returning impressive research results and most of us don’t eat enough of them. (Yes, I know fungi aren’t really plants but let’s put them in here anyway).
  2. Be wary of supplements
    It may be that your dietary intake of a particular micro nutrient is inadequate. In most cases that’s easy to fix. Add a food containing it to your diet. There seems to be a very relaxed attitude to supplements with most people considering them to be safe, but many can be toxic if you take too much of them and many can interact with medications in dangerous ways. You also need to be careful if you’re approaching surgery because a lot of popular supplements (e.g. fish oil) can cause excess bleeding. It’s almost impossible to get too much of a micro nutrient from food so if you think you’re lacking anything, try googling ‘natural sources of …….’ and improving your diet. Always discuss supplements with your doctor and when you’re asked ‘are you on any medication?’ make sure you disclose any regular supplements. We should be treating these pills with the same caution we apply to pharmaceuticals. Your doctor may prescribe a supplement as part of your recovery (particularly vitamin D) and you should make sure these are taken according to the dosage instructions. More is not better.
  3. Reduce animal protein
    I remain convinced that eating some animal protein each week is good for me, particularly for maintaining healthy levels of iron, B12 and essential amino acids. I’m also sure that I don’t need more that three or four serves a week. I’m also convinced that the profile of organically raised, grass fed meat is different and more nutritious than factory farmed and grain fed meat. There is research to support this view.
  4. Eat less food
    Most of us still eat too much. Just eating less can have a positive impact on our health and survival. I suspect it’s actually healthy for us to be hungry some of the time but with the modern availability of food, most of us can reach for something the second we feel any hunger. A meal should leave you feeling pleasantly satisfied, not stuffed like a pillow. If you’ve been conditioned to eat everything on your plate then it’s time to recover from the notion that overeating is somehow virtuous.
  5. Reduce or eliminate alcohol
    Sorry to say that the evidence for alcohol as a category one carcinogen is overwhelming. If you decide to drink then there is some evidence that resveratrol in red wine may help to reduce its carcinogenic impact, but you’d be better off eating red grapes or including some red wine vinegar in your diet and avoiding the wine.
  6. Pay attention to your body
    You may want to try some kind of protocol to determine if you have any food intolerances or you might prefer to just observe how you react to different foods. Either way it’s important to notice how you feel, and how your body reacts, after different types of food. Your bowels are a good indication of gut health and if you’re not seeing at least one well formed bowel movement every day your body is trying to tell you something. Same goes for bad breath, sallow skin, hives and rashes, acne and other physical symptoms. That’s not to say that all of these things are always caused by diet, but they may be. It’s also important to recognise that we are complex organisms and there are many different things affecting our body, including hormone levels, underlying health, regular medication and even the weather. I’ve met many people eating highly restrictive diets because they are certain they’ve had a reaction to something, once, a long time ago. A lot of self-diagnosed food intolerances aren’t real.
  7. Fast regularly
    The evidence for fasting having significant health benefits is, I think, compelling. It can lower human growth hormone (typically high in those at risk of cancer) and trigger cell autophagy (the body’s natural process for cleaning up damaged cells). I have two fast days each week where I eat only 500 calories as an evening meal. Apart from the milk in my morning coffee that’s all I have all day. I’ve also achieved a healthy weight using this method. Don’t fast without talking to your doctor first. It’s unsuitable for some people, particularly those on regular medication.
  8. Drink more water
    It’s critical to the optimal function of your body and you can raise low blood pressure within minutes just by drinking water. This is an excellent demonstration of how important it is to stay well hydrated. I often see sites that say we are inclined to confuse thirst with hunger, but I think this misses the point. Our bodies aren’t mistaken. There’s really no difference between hunger and thirst because a lot of our moisture comes from our food. Our ancient ancestors didn’t carry drink bottles and probably got a lot of their moisture from food. This is another reason to eat fresh fruit and vegetables (they have a high water content) and to have a big drink of water before you eat a meal.
  9. Prepare most of your meals from scratch using whole foods
    Takeaway and eating out are both fine from time to time (and may well fall under stress reduction if you just can’t manage cooking), but if they’re a regular part of your week it’s likely you’re eating far too much sugar, saturated fat and salt. There’s also a much higher risk of overeating because we tend to eat the serving rather than paying attention to our appetites. My preference is to use organic ingredients at home whenever I can and to prepare them fairly simply. I also avoid most processed foods. The additives in processed foods appear to have a negative impact on the human gut. Processed foods are also typically higher in sugar and saturated fat than home cooked meals.
  10. Don’t Panic!
    I sometimes wonder how much damage we do to ourselves with food anxiety. On the one hand, it’s great to feel like we’re making a difference to our health by eating well. On the other hand, we can quickly descend into guilt and worry after a weekend pizza or a few hours on a nutrition website. I think food, and sharing food with friends and family, should be one of the great joys of our life.

By paying attention to how I feel and how my body reacts to certain foods I’ve significantly reduced sugar and gluten in my diet and I eat well most of the time. I also enjoy eating out, eating takeaway, eating soft cheese and eating chocolate. Sometimes. Much less often than I used to. I’m still making improvements to my diet on a regular basis and doing some online research from time to time to see if there’s anything else I might add or subtract that will make a difference, but I’m not obsessive.

I hope this short summary is useful. My final advice is to take a long view when it comes to fashionable diets. They have always been around. They will always be around. Very few of them have stood the test of time and I see no reason to expect that will change. Use one of them if it helps you to eat well but don’t feel pressured. The truth is that we still don’t know nearly enough about how the human body interacts with what we eat, but we do know that eating well can make a big difference to our health, so let’s just focus on that.

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What to Eat

I was interested to see research reported today that claims the Paleo diet is bad for you. It made me think about how many times researchers have given me dietary advice that was later disproven.

At various times in my life, all of the following have been ‘healthy’ or ‘unhealthy’ based on scientific studies: eggs, milk, chocolate, cheese, wine, red meat, fish, butter, margarine, nuts, refined flour, whole grain foods, brown rice, white rice, fruit juice, protein bars, vitamin supplements, not drinking enough water, drinking too much water, chillies, garlic and other alums, tomatoes and other nightshade vegetables, saliva (okay, that last one is a joke). There seems to have been consistent advice on refined sugar but the jury is out of fruit. For goodness sake!

My friend Cat gives the best dietary advice; figure out what works for your body. Limit processed food. That’s it.

I think it’s great advice because it acknowledges what we all know; what works for us might not be what works for someone else.

I’m over scientists telling me what’s ‘healthy’. The trouble with categorising food as either healthy or unhealthy is that it’s misleading. No food all on its own is healthy. Apples will kill you if that’s all you ever eat! Humans need to eat a diverse diet containing a range of different foods. From now on I’m focusing on what’s nutritious and nourishing.

My other difficulty with food research is that it’s such a blunt instrument. Red meat was ‘proven’ to be bad for us but the research was done using grain fed, factory farmed meat. It turns out that grass fed meat has a completely different nutritional profile. In particular, the omega 3 and omega 6 balance is way out in grain fed meat and this would explain the research results. Often it’s not just what we eat, but the origin of what we eat that matters.

The most common group of human subjects for researchers are college and university students. They like to use young men because then they don’t get the variations caused by female hormonal cycles. I don’t know about you but my diet and lifestyle are about as different to that of an average college student as chalk is to biodynamic, ethically farmed cheese. Even when researchers use a community based control group I know that the kind of variation I can see in the crowd at the local shopping centre means that very few of the subjects are going to have very much in common with me.

So I’m taking Cat’s advice and focusing on what works for my body.

Because I garden I have the luxury of wandering around with a basket every afternoon and deciding what’s going into my dinner that night. It’s interesting that some days I really feel like tomatoes and others I want lots of leafy greens. Is this my body telling me what it needs or just a human desire for variety? I don’t know. I don’t subscribe to the notion that a craving equals a need because I sometimes crave sweet things and experience has taught me this is a sure sign that I’m tired rather than desperately in need of a kick in the blood sugar.

My best response to a sugar craving is something high in protein and an early night.

Because I now fast regularly I’ve become really aware of my reaction to the first thing I eat after fasting. Food with gluten in it makes my tummy bloat. When you’ve got no breasts this is really obvious! I’m eating much less gluten.

I’ve also found that fasting seems to have substantially reduced my cravings for sweet things. It’s likely that the gut flora that tricks my brain into wanting sugar has been killed off or significantly reduced by fasting. I really can make it all the way down the biscuit aisle at the supermarket without reaching for the tim tams. This is both surprising and joyful.

I know that the way my body looks and feels is a direct consequence of the choices I make. If I gain a few kilos I know why. If I want to drop a few kilos I know how. I recognise that keeping my body at a healthy weight will help me to live a longer, happier life. It seems that’s true for everyone, not just cancer survivors.

I also like to consider the broader impact of the choices I make. Organic food isn’t just better for my body, it’s better for the planet. Growing some of my own food means I don’t need to get in a car and drive anywhere to be able to put dinner on the table. Eating more vegetables and less meat makes environmental and dietary sense.

This is what works for me. It might not be what works for you. By all means try some of the different diets if they appeal to you but I’d also encourage you to be prepared to abandon them if you’re not feeling great. I love The Fast Diet. I’ve lost loads of excess weight, re-established a healthy relationship with food and beaten my cravings. There’s no question that I’m healthy because of it and the research would suggest that it’s helping me to avoid cancer.

But it might make you miserable. If it does, find something that works for you.

 

Chemo Brain And How To Treat It

My brain is back.

It’s like the sun coming out after a week of rain. Except it’s been raining for over two years. The return of my full cognitive function hasn’t been as sudden as a change in the weather, but the impact on my mood has been as dramatic.

It’s like discovering I’ve been living in just one room and that my home has three storeys. It’s like discovering I’ve been driving around in first gear and my car has five gears. With hindsight, I realise how badly my cognitive functioning was effected by treatment, although living through it I probably wasn’t cognisant of how impaired I really was (and this might be one of the few benefits of chemo brain).

I know this condition has a huge impact on the quality of life of so many survivors, so I thought I’d share my best advice for recovery.

First of all, understand that as far as researchers have been able to determine, it’s not exclusively caused by chemotherapy. While we all call it ‘chemo brain’ or ‘chemo fog’ the correct description is ‘mild cognitive impairment following cancer treatment’.

The causes haven’t been clearly identified but it’s a real condition, and it can be picked up with imaging technology. In one study, breast cancer survivors not only required a larger area of their brain to respond to a question, they used more energy to do so. In another, the resting metabolic rate of the brain was slower.

So the first bit of good news is you’re not imagining things. That inability to remember your phone number, the name on the tip of your tongue or the misspoken phrase are all manifestations of ‘chemo brain’. So is a general feeling of fogginess, mental sluggishness and difficulty learning anything new.

Coping with it usually involves implementing the kind of strategies they give people with early dementia; keep lists; use a calendar and a notebook; have one spot where you always put the things you lose regularly. All of this helps but what we really want is an effective way to hasten our recovery.

The really good news is that recovery is not only possible, most people find it relatively easy to achieve.

Apart from physical damage caused by treatment, chemo brain might also be caused by a range of other factors. The main suspect is anxiety, which can cause cognitive impairment all on its own. Hands up anyone that managed to get through cancer without feeling anxious. Depression is also a common after effect of treatment and yes, it’s also characterised by brain fog. If you suspect you’ve got ongoing issues with either anxiety or depression it’s important to discuss this with your doctor.

Vitamin D deficiency could also play a part because most of us had to avoid the sunshine for several months due to either chemotherapy or radiation. If you didn’t take your vitamin D supplements and treatment just got you out of the habit of sitting in the sun then an improvement could be as close as eating breakfast outside every day. Special note here to avoid supplements with calcium in them because they’ve been shown to be a health risk and to favour sun over supplements when you can because the type of vitamin D your body manufactures in response to sunlight is more beneficial.

If you’re experiencing serious mental impairment it’s also worth asking your doctor to give you a simple cognitive test to rule out dementia or any other illness that might be impacting your cognitive function. Don’t just assume it’s a result of treatment.

Having discussed chemo brain with a number of survivors there’s now been several that have overcome their problems by dealing with anxiety, depression or vitamin D deficiency so consider those first. Once you’ve ruled out other causes there’s still plenty you can do to reclaim your brain.

Here’s my top six recommendations for treating chemo brain. Many of these are things we should all be doing to improve our health and boost our immune system so adding them into your daily routine should bring a whole lot of benefits.

Please treat this list as a menu rather than a prescription. Choose what appeals to you and try it for a few months before you rule it out. And please share any other ideas you have about this condition.

  1. Fasting (aka The Fast Diet or 5:2 calorie restricted eating)
    What it is: an eating strategy where you limit your calories to 500 on two days each week.
    Why it might help: Fasting triggers autophagy, the body’s natural mechanism for cleaning up dead and damaged cells. Even people that haven’t been through cancer treatment regularly report improved mental clarity when they adopt this way of eating.
    My experience: My cognitive function had been improving over time since I finished treatment but my biggest step forward coincided with switching to this way of eating. Of course it’s possible that this shift was coincidental so I’d be very interested to hear from anyone else that tries 5:2 or some other fasting regime and notices a brain boost. There are lots of good reasons for cancer survivors to consider fasting in any case.
  2. Yoga (Seriously, what isn’t yoga good for?)
    What it is: an ancient practice that links physical exercise with breathing and mindfulness
    Why it might help: Research shows that yoga has a profound effect on our physiology, including our cognitive function and our ability to deal with anxiety. Some of the benefits are undoubtedly associated with the increase of oxygen to the brain but yoga has such significant benefits over other forms of exercise that it’s clear they’re only scratching the surface of what’s going on inside us when we practice it.
    My experience: I’ve written before about the profound impact yoga has had on my ability to deal with treatment and my recovery. The benefits have ranged from helping me to deal with anxiety and pain to preventing nausea. Yoga helped me to restore my energy when treatment drained it and played a big part in my recovery from surgery thanks to my physical strength and flexibility.
    If you don’t find yoga appealing then exercise will also help you to recover your brain. I just don’t think it will achieve this as quickly or as well as yoga.
  3. Mindfulness
    What it is: a practice of focusing on the present moment and doing one thing at a time. Some people use meditation to learn mindfulness and others learn it by just focusing on whatever they are doing right now.
    I use both. Mindfulness for me includes listening to recorded meditations on my iPod and paying close attention to whatever I’m doing during the day. Even the washing up can be a meditation.
    Why it might help: Mindfulness trains your brain to still the ‘monkey mind’ that jumps from one thing to another. It also helps to reduce anxiety which might be a major contributor to cognitive impairment.
    My experience: Mindfulness has helped me to stay calm and to be present. My mind functions better when it’s calm.
  4. What you put in your mouth
    What it is: Attention to good nutrition, good hydration and avoiding those things you know aren’t good for you.
    Why it might help: Food and water are fuel for our bodies and the functioning of our bodies is directly linked to the quality of that fuel. We know that children show huge cognitive improvement when their diet is improved and that it also has an impact on mood and behaviour. Recent research into the addition of fresh vegetables into the diets of older people also demonstrated improved cognitive function. We are what we eat.Water is also critical to healthy brains. I noticed in hospital that my low blood pressure was immediately remedied by drinking a glass of water and our brains rely upon a good blood supply to function.

    Avoiding those things we know are unhealthy, including alcohol, highly processed food and high sugar food will also have an impact on our brains. People with allergies and food sensitivities will know that a small change in diet can mean a big improvement in health.

    My experience: My diet was pretty good before I was diagnosed. It’s even better now. I’ve significantly reduced all of those things I know are unhealthy while still allowing for the occasional treat. We predominantly eat organic food and I cook from scratch. I’ve cut right back on gluten after I noticed (thanks to The Fast Diet) that it made me tired and bloated. I still need to work on drinking enough water every day but I’ve improved on that score too. It comes as no surprise to me that the better I eat, the better I feel.

  5. Iodine Supplements
    Regular followers will know that I’d rather get my nutrition from food than supplements but based on my own research and an examination of my diet I determined that there was a possibility that I was iodine deficient. I don’t eat a lot of fish and while dairy used to be a good source of iodine, changes in farming practices mean it’s no longer used. The clearing of the fog has coincided with the introduction of iodine into my diet so it’s worth considering. Please let me know if you have similar results. As always, I strongly recommend you discuss any supplementation with your medical team, particularly if you’re in active treatment.
  6. Sleep
    Sleep is the great healer. When I was in treatment it was common for me to sleep in excess of ten hours a day. As my health has improved my need for sleep has declined but I still regularly get eight hours. Sleep is such an important part of recovery that I’m dedicating all of my next blog post to it.

Here are some other things you might like to try:

  1. Learning a language or a musical instrument
    If you’ve read any of the recent research into neural plasticity you’ll already know about this one. It’s long been thought that the only time when the brain was ‘plastic’ and able to create new neural pathways was during early childhood. Now it’s clear that we can keep building new connections in our brain for the whole of our lives. The quickest and most effective way to do this is to learn something new. Languages and music are particularly good, but learning anything new will help. A number of people have told me they’re finding ‘luminosity’ (a web site that charges you a monthly fee to play ‘brain training’ games) very helpful. You could also try puzzle books or free online puzzle sites.
  2. Get creative
    Creative pursuits are good for your brain and your mood. Pick something you really enjoy and dedicate a bit more time to it. It might be gardening or scrapbooking or making furniture out of scrap wood. It really doesn’t matter what you choose as long as it gets you making lots of happy choices. There’s a huge surge in the popularity of colouring in books for adults at the moment. I wish these had been around when I had chemo. They’re very relaxing and great fun, combining creativity with mindfulness.
  3. Take a holiday
    A break from your usual routine can be good for your brain. It doesn’t need to be expensive or involve air travel. It might just be a weekend visiting a good friend. The aim here is to find something restful and calming. If the thought of packing a bag and going anywhere makes you anxious then stay home.
  4. Have a cuddle
    Not that anyone needs an excuse, but cuddles are good for your brain. They increase oxytocin levels and this helps you to feel calmer and happier. You can cuddle a person or a pet. You can cuddle a partner a friend or a child.
  5. Have a massage
    It’s a combination of cuddling, mindfulness and increasing oxygenation. It’s the triple whammy of treatments when it comes to helping you restore cognitive function. You can also credit it with reducing anxiety, giving you a break from your routine and helping you to feel good about your body. There are now massage therapists that specialise in treating people going through or recovering from cancer treatment, so look up ‘oncology massage’ and treat this as a necessary part of your recovery (rather than an occasional treat).

Finally, don’t give up. There’s no upper limit to how well we can be. Recovery from chemo brain is certainly possible and most of the things that help us to achieve it are things we should probably be doing anyway.

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!

 

A Warning About Calcium and Vitamin D Supplements

IMPORTANT HEALTH WARNING: New Scientist for the 30th of August 2014 has a great article about the current scientific research into vitamin and mineral supplements. It’s no surprise that most of them are useless. Vitamin D and Fish Oil get the tick but if you’re like a lot of post menopausal woman and taking a vitamin D supplement that includes calcium then please read this:

“Too much calcium from supplements can cause kidney stones. But of graver concern are risks to the heart. A five year trial of post menopausal women found that those taking the supplements were more likely to suffer a heart attack or a stroke than those who didn’t. A subsequent analysis confirmed the increased risk. As a result of such studies, medical advice is changing. Last year the US Preventative Services Task Force changed its guidance to recommend against the combination of calcium and vitamin D supplements for post menopausal women.”

So if you’re vitamin D deficient take a supplement that doesn’t contain calcium (in Australia, Blackmores make one) or better still, try to get the recommended amount of sunshine on bare skin for your location. New Scientist also published research about a year ago that established the superiority of sunshine over supplements.

This is particularly important for anyone facing chemotherapy. Oncologists typically (and sensibly) recommend a vitamin D supplement because we need to avoid direct sunlight during chemo. Many of the commercially available supplements, like ‘Caltrate’  contain calcium. Check to make sure you’re not taking something that might compromise your health.

I’m a big fan of A2 milk and get plenty of calcium in my diet. If you’re not a milk drinker then google ‘food sources of calcium’ to make sure you’re eating enough.

 

Eating Cancer to Death

I’ve been asked to write something about nutrition from one of my regular readers. I’ve been reluctant to do so, firstly because I don’t consider myself to have any expertise in this area and secondly because it seems that writing about nutrition is a good way to get some people’s backs up. Still, the person making the request has been such a great supporter of my blog that I feel I owe her this one.

Let’s start with some important caveats. I don’t think anyone has come up with the definitive guide to human nutrition. Yes, there’s mountains of research and evidence of what nutritional deficiency looks like, but the jury is out on how best to nourish our bodies. It seems that for every piece of research recommending we eat something (or a combination of things) there’s another piece of research telling us to avoid exactly the same things. It’s frustrating. I can remember when eggs were off the menu and we were all supposed to increase the amount of whole grains in our diet. Now grains are out and eggs are back and butter is a superfood. Chances are that anything I write today about nutrition will be obsolete by next year, assuming it had any relevance at all.

I also think my friend, Cat, has the best advice about nutrition; we are all different. What works for one person may be poison for another. Human beings are incredibly complex organisms. Actually, we’re not even individual organisms. Each of us is a collective of bacteria, symbiotic organisms and parasites that feed on us. Our DNA has been affected by the things our bodies have been through and also by the things our ancestors were exposed to. As an example, it turns out that my ability to digest dairy products is directly related to my ancestors keeping cows in the house. Amazing. If your ancestors were rice growers or camel herders then you might not be able to digest dairy at all. 

The risk with nutrition is that we can become obsessive about it. As a cancer survivor I understand this. Food is one of the few things I can control and I recognise my own desire to see it as a way to prevent cancer coming back. This idea is much more appealing that the thought that there is nothing I can do that will make any difference at all. I really do think good nutrition will make a difference to my odds, but I also accept that it’s possible to do everything ‘right’ and to still have cancer come back. Cancer is like that. 

I’ve decided to pay more attention to what goes into my mouth because I want to be as fit and healthy as I can be. That’s the foundation for my interest in good nutrition. Regular readers will know that my investigative background makes me highly skeptical about anything that isn’t backed by decent research (and just a little skeptical about things that are; a lot of nutrition research is funded by those with vested interests). I’ve done some reading and reached some tentative conclusions. This is the current state of my thinking on nutrition.

1. I love my body as it is, right now. I will not beat myself up over the extra kilos I gained during chemotherapy or the extra kilos I had before I started treatment. My body has done an amazing job of fighting cancer. I love it. Scars and all. I think all good nutrition starts here.

2. I don’t care about scales or the BMI chart. I can determine whether or not I am a healthy weight by how I feel in my clothes and how easily I can climb a flight of stairs. Around about the middle of a size twelve is a good size for me (I’m about 5’6″). At a size 12 the BMI chart says I’m overweight. Screw you BMI!

3. I recognise that the stress associated with trying to meet some arbitrary standard of thinness is a major cause of weight gain. Stress hormones cause people to store fat. Same goes for other sources of stress in my life, including lack of sleep or anxiety. See also point 1 on this issue.

4. Not having enough water places my body under stress. My body reads dehydration as a threat and shifts my metabolism to protect my major organs and to hang on to as much fat as possible. What a good body it is, trying to keep me safe. I need to drink plenty of water to be healthy.

5. It doesn’t matter so much about the quantity of food I eat. What really matters is the quality. I’ve had times in my life where I counted calories and the weight wouldn’t shift. I know now that the poor quality of the food I was eating put my body under stress and caused it to store fat. I could eat a whole bucket of beautiful organic vegetables three times a day and I would NOT be overweight. See what I mean about quantity? The best thing about eating a high quality diet is that you can’t possibly over eat.

6. Poor nutrition is a major source of hunger. Calorie counting (or as my Weight Watcher’s co-ordinator called it ‘points counting’) is pointless if the calories reside in poor quality food. My wonderful, clever body knew I wasn’t getting enough essential nutrients and so it told me to eat more. Unfortunately I tended to scramble this signal and respond with the wrong kind of food. Figuring this one out meant never being hungry again. Really. Never.

7. Low fat diets and most low fat foods are unhealthy and place the body under stress. You’ve figured out by now what I think the major cause of weight gain is likely to be, haven’t you. Yes. Stress. Healthy fats are essential to good health. They help us absorb essential nutrients and they also help us to feel satisfied. That’s why you’re hungry all the time on a low fat diet. Your body is trying to tell you that you NEED fat to be healthy.

8. Most of us need to eat at a lot more vegetables. Loads more. Heaps more. And a couple of pieces of fruit every day. The great thing about vegetables is that you really can eat as much of them as you want. Pile your plate high and dig in. I buy as much organic, locally grown produce as I can. I’m also lucky enough to have a garden. Even commercially farmed vegetables will give your body more nutrition than processed ‘diet’ food.

9. The ‘food pyramid’ is nonsense and likely the product of some serious lobbying by some members of the food industry. How many serves of grains and cereals in a day? Really? Let’s be clear. Nobody ever died of a grain deficiency. Many people are gluten intolerant and many others find that foods like bread and biscuits trigger overeating. Your body needs fresh vegetables and some protein. Have a look at the diets of people in some of the harshest places on earth, like desserts and arctic areas. Okay, I’m not switching to seal fat and herbs but my point is that it’s possible for humans to thrive on nothing else.

10. The food industry is worth billions of dollars. Lots of people have a vested interest in convincing you to buy their particular version of ‘nutrition’. Do your own research. Experiment with your own body. Figure out what works for you. It might be that you’ll be better without dairy, or gluten or you might be one of those people that feels best on the FODMAP diet, or the paleo diet. For me, ‘diet’ should be a word we use to describe how we eat all of the time, not a word used to describe a temporary restrictive eating plan designed to make us lose weight.

11. I have managed to figure out which foods make me feel satisfied and which foods help me to avoid bloating and digestive problems. I love my A2 dairy and although I’ve reduced gluten (because I’m eating a lot less of those foods that contain it) I don’t have any trouble digesting it. I love whole grains because they’re a great source of B vitamins and I love legumes as a meat free protein. I don’t understand how some diets can demonise grain and then recommend seeds because, as a gardener, I know that grains are….well, seeds!

This is what works for me. Everyone needs to go through the process of figuring out what works for them.

I like the idea that somewhere in my DNA is the code for your the best my body can be. I just need to feed myself properly to get back there.

My approach has been moderate. If it can’t hurt and it might help I’ve included it.  We’ve always loved healthy, organic food and now there’s an added emphasis on making sure we include hemp seed, tumeric, mushrooms, coconut oil, probiotic drinking yoghurt, water cress, walnuts, kale, parsley, broccoli, berries and bananas. I have read research that says organic food is no better for me but I think they missed the point. The appeal for me is what’s NOT in it. I have deliberately allowed myself to be pumped full of toxic chemicals. It seems sensible to me that I should do everything I can not to add to that burden.

We’re eating grass fed, organic meat because it’s high in omega 3, and ‘ordinary’ meat isn’t because the cattle have been fed on grain. This is a really important difference because getting the balance of omega 3, 6 and 9 right is important in preventing and fighting cancer.

The internet is full of claims about the ‘anti-cancer’ properties of certain foods. There’s some great academic research mixed in with some ridiculous claims and some vested interests; Why do people assume that pharmaceutical companies will mislead them but companies selling supplements won’t? I take vitamin D on any day that I haven’t been able to get 15 minutes of sun on my skin. I generally avoid supplements. I know that if I’m eating well I shouldn’t need them and I’m concerned that some supplements can throw my system completely out of whack. It’s a bit like fertiliser and plants. It’s possible to have too much of a good thing. I also worry about where some of these supplements come from and how they are made. Food will always be my first choice.

What I’m not doing is putting my body through the additional stress of any of the radical ‘anti cancer’ diets that are touted. I don’t plan on restricting my meals to fat and meat in order to ‘go ketogenic’ and I don’t plan on ingesting large quantities of carb soda with molasses in order to ‘alkalise’ my body. I won’t be fasting for days at a time or restricting my eating to just one or two foods. Right now my body needs nourishing with good, healthy food and some relaxation about the occasional treat. What I don’t need is to wage war on my body with food.

A lot of these diets have noisy supporters. I support everyone’s right to do what they feel is best for them in the face of a cancer diagnosis. I’d need to see more convincing evidence that any of these extreme diets had an impact before  I’d put my poor, recovering body through any of this torture.

I have seen evidence of the benefits of eating less and fasting. New Scientist has had a series of articles on how reducing the amount you eat and lengthening the time between your last meal and breakfast can have measurable health benefits, but ‘eating less’ does not mean starving yourself and the gap between meals means cutting out night time snacks and not rushing to have breakfast, rather than spending days drinking lemon juice. I haven’t measured my food intake but I have noticed that by improving the quality of my food I’m naturally eating less. I just don’t feel hungry.

My usual pattern is to have coffee when I get up but to put breakfast off until about 10.00am, when I feel like eating. I’ll have something light and nourishing around 2.00pm or 3.00pm (if I’m not meeting a girlfriend for lunch) and this often includes a piece of fruit and lots of leafy greens. Yes, I have discovered the benefits of the green smoothie. Dinner tends to be my biggest meal of the day because this is when my husband and I get to sit down together.

I’m eating mindfully, taking time to really enjoy what I’m eating and to appreciate where it’s come from. I’m trying (not always succeeding) to avoid doing anything else while I’m eating. Distracted eating usually means over-eating. I’m gradually increasing my physical activity and although I’m still tired, I’m slowly regaining my strength. I’ve also given up all but the very occasional alcoholic drink. That stuff is poison.

I finished treatment at the beginning of April and it’s almost the end of May. I’m back in my size 12 jeans. I’m eating well and feeling great. People tell me I look fitter and younger that I did before treatment. Wouldn’t it be great if we could find a way for that to happen to everyone that goes through this?

So, that’s my brain dump on nutrition. I hope you find it interesting and that it gets you thinking about what you put in your body. I don’t know if it’s possible to eat cancer to death but it’s certainly possible to eat ourselves well, and why wouldn’t we want to be as healthy as it’s possible to be?

PS: I woke up this morning and wanted to add this last piece of advice: If your gut isn’t healthy you won’t be able to process food properly and you’ll always be hungry. Chemotherapy and medications (especially antibiotics) strip our bodies of the healthy bacteria that should populate our gut. I use Babushka kefir drinking yoghurt to repopulate my gut and get rid of nausea, bloating and poor digestion. You can also use naturally fermented vegetables, natural yoghurt or probiotic supplements. Flavoured yoghurt is full of sugar so I don’t eat it.

It still fascinates me that when I ‘fought’ my weight I had no success and when I let go and just started loving my body everything somehow fell into place and the weight came off, slowly and steadily, without me needing to ‘go on a diet’. All of the changes I have made are permanent. My body is still dropping weight but more slowly than before. I know that I’ll reach a kind of equilibrium in the next few months and that whatever I weigh when I get there will be my ‘correct’ weight.

 

Why I Support Cannabis Law Reform

It shocks a lot of people, given my previous employment as a NSW Police Superintendent, to learn that I support law reform in relation to Cannabis. There’s an assumption that all police oppose drug law reform. This is incorrect. Police see first hand the consequences of ‘the war on drugs’ and the futility of an enforcement based approach. Many wonder if we shouldn’t have the same kind of shift that happened many years ago with alcohol. Remember when ‘drunks’ used to get locked up for the night? Now excess alcohol consumption is considered a health issue.

In July last year I was diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer. It’s more aggressive that other forms of breast cancer and has a worse prognosis.

As a consequence of my diagnosis I’ve been researching medical cannabis. I’ve discovered that breast cancer, particularly triple negative breast cancer, might respond to treatment with cannabis.

I’ve spent many hours watching YouTube videos of people claiming their cancer was completely cured using cannabis oil (also called ‘Rick Simpson Oil’) and I’ve waded through several dozen research papers. I think those claiming that cannabis kills cancer need to modify their claim to ‘cannabis kills some cancers’ and I do wish they didn’t feel the need to completely denigrate all forms of mainstream treatment, but it’s very clear that there’s a growing body of evidence to support their claims.

If you’d like a short film on the subject then google ‘Run From the Cure’ or ‘Cannabis and Cancer’. If you’d like a quick summary from a reputable source, including plenty of research citations, then have a look at this: http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/pdq/cam/cannabis/healthprofessional/page4

I support any reforms to our legislation that will make cannabis available for medical use.

You will appreciate that given my background and my long history of opposing illegal drug use, I have not come easily to this decision. The evidence is compelling. Cannabis, in some circumstances, kills some cancers. It also helps people cope with the side effects of chemotherapy and provides better palliative pain relief for some people than the alternatives.

I’ve been following, with interest, the work of the parliamentary committee into medical cannabis use. The Police Force, via The Commander of the NSW Police Drug Squad, Detective Superintendent Nick Bingham, expressed concerns that making cannabis medically available would increase illegal drug use. Their concerned that it will ‘leak’ into the community.

In spite of police force opposition, the committee unanimously recommended that cannabis should be made legally available to terminally ill people. Unfortunately, the State Government rejected the committee’s recommendations. There’s a bucket of words they used to defend their decision but it’s just pollie-speak so  I won’t insult your intelligence or waste your time quoting it. After appointing a committee to wade through the mountains of evidence and listen to patients, doctors, advocates and detractors the committee did what they were supposed to do and made evidence-based recommendations. For political reasons their recommendations were rejected.

I know that these changes would only have been of benefit to me if (when) I am close to death but having seen my father’s reaction to morphine (paranoia, anorexia and feeling like he had insects crawling under his skin) prior to his death from cancer, I know that would be a big improvement on what’s currently available in palliative care.

Here’s my best argument in support of legal medical use:

I do not dispute that cannabis is abused but the evidence is clear that it provides some people a better and safer form of pain relief than commercially available drugs. It has less side effects and is better tolerated.

Medically available pain killers are also the subject of wide spread abuse, but we do not make them illegal on that basis. These drugs are stronger and more dangerous that cannabis, and overdose can be fatal.

It seems unreasonable to deny terminally ill patients a safe form of medication because of the abuse by some people, when drugs that are far more dangerous are legally available in spite of abuse. It also demonstrates a chronic lack of compassion.

Prohibition does not prevent drug abuse (or we wouldn’t need a drug squad). Legalisation for a specific section of the community does not undermine enforcement. As an example, consider steroids.  They are widely abused by body builders but their benefits to sick people mean that we can still get them on prescription. They are not banned just because some people misuse them.

I would argue that the same ‘greater good’ standard should apply with regard to medical cannabis. The benefits of cannabis to critically ill people outweigh the risks associated with illegal use.

I would add that cannabis abuse, unlike pharmaceutical abuse, is never fatal.

Here is my best argument in response to Commander Nick Bingham’s concerns expressed to the committee: That there is a danger of ‘leakage’ into the community and an increase in cannabis use:

The current legislation is not preventing sick people from using cannabis. Spend some time in the waiting room of any oncologist and it isn’t long before people are telling you about how they purchased their vaporiser or where they get their cannabis. In my case, these people are middle-aged women with breast cancer and no previous history of drug abuse. Some of them talk about how they almost gave up chemotherapy and then found cannabis relieved their chronic nausea.

Go online and it’s not too difficult to locate people in other jurisdictions that are happy to offer you cannabis products, and happy to send them into this jurisdiction. There are several sites promoting ‘Rick Simpson’s Oil’ and several more extolling the virtues of cannabis for curing everything from multiple sclerosis to epilepsy. There is information on making your own cannabis oil and advice on how to locate suppliers.

For those unencumbered by a twenty year police history and the accompanying respect for the rule of law, cannabis and cannabis products are easily obtained. Many of the people involved in the production and distribution of cannabis products do so out of compassion. Some of them don’t even ask for payment. There’s a cluster of different communities out there, all sharing names, advice and precautions. If you wanted to obtain cannabis oil to treat cancer you could probably do so within a week, just by roaming Facebook and asking politely. Assuming you couldn’t get it locally.

In spite of my background, I’ve had three different friends offer to supply me with cannabis (much to my surprise). It turns out that it is widely used as a recreation drug by people not usually associated with drug abuse. You wouldn’t pick any of these people as ‘dope smokers’. I was fortunate. I did not have nausea with my chemotherapy. If I had been so ill that I couldn’t eat and cannabis relieved this, would I have used it? Absolutely.

Cannabis seed is also easy to find and easy to import. The internet has all of the information you need to successfully grow your own, or to find someone to supply you. There’s even ‘medical seeds’ available, with lower THC (the stuff that gets you high) and higher CBD. Contrary to some people’s views, those using medical cannabis generally want to avoid the recreational effects.

Ask any high school teacher about the availability of cannabis for recreational use. Do you know what they’ll tell you? Kids have no trouble getting it if they want it.

So my strongest argument against Nick’s claim is this: the legislation is unlikely to cause ‘leakage’ into the community because cannabis is already so widely available that the change in legislation will have little impact upon supply. What it will change is the criminalisation of patients and their carers.

I appreciate that this is not a politically palatable response but it is the truth.

Of course, not all of the people offering cannabis oil or cannabis products are genuine. Because people wishing to use cannabis oil need to break the law to do it they are easy prey for criminals. Fortunately, the Facebook community groups are very good at naming and exposing fraudulent sellers, but you need to be a member of those groups to access that information. A lot of people searching for cannabis oil on the internet are desperate. They don’t have time to join forums or conduct research. Some of them have forked out thousands for industrial hemp oil worth a few dollars. Others send money and never receive any product. It’s risky, and financially draining, at a time when people least need this kind of stress. Legislation would undermine the criminals.

There’s plenty of information available about how to make your own cannabis oil. It’s not difficult, but it is dangerous as it involves using highly flammable solvents. People have been seriously injured when a spark ignites the whole lot and a fireball engulfs them. Legislation would allow for safe manufacture.

People will continue to buy cannabis oil, or make it, and use it, in spite of it being illegal. It surprises me that people in positions of power have so little empathy. If they had terminal cancer, or someone they loved had terminal cancer, and they knew cannabis would ease their pain more effectively than prescription drugs wouldn’t they break the law to get some? How about this question; if you or someone you loved was diagnosed with cancer and you formed the opinion, based on your research, that cannabis oil might actually cure that cancer would you use it?

This debate is less about whether or not sick people will use cannabis and more about the conditions under which they will use it.

At present, people choosing to use cannabis have the additional stress of worrying about where they will obtain a regular supply and what will happen if they are arrested. At a time when these families already have so much to be anxious about, making cannabis legally available to them would be an act of compassion.

There’s a flip side to the current legislation. Many people who would benefit from cannabis are not even prepared to try it while it remains illegal. In some cases this means giving up chemotherapy early because of nausea. In others it means enduring unnecessary pain and distress. If cannabis is conclusively proven to cure some cancers then there are people dying right now that might have been saved.

As an additional supporting argument I offer the observation that many of the cannabis forums include stories of police officers acting compassionately when they detect cannabis possession by seriously ill people. These officers find themselves in a position where they judge the law to be bad law, and choose not to enforce it. They place themselves at professional risk by doing so.

There are those that argue that cannabis has serious side effects for some people. Psychosis is the most often cited. Morphine causes acute paranoia in some people and it’s also highly addictive. We don’t ban it. We make sure it’s only available on prescription and that its use is monitored by medical professionals. Why not do the same for cannabis.

There are also those that argue that legalising cannabis will be ‘the thin edge of the wedge’. They worry that legalising cannabis for medical use will somehow naturally lead to legalisation for recreational use. Just about the only thing that has ever been the thin edge of a wedge is the actual edge of an actual wedge. This argument is a fallacy. Things don’t just somehow magically get incorporated into legislation. It needs to go through parliament. That’s why we make our laws that way.

I’d add that in Colorado the first measurable impact of their broad legalisation of cannabis has been a significant drop in youth suicide. It’s early days and I’m watching that state with interest. They might just change my mind about recreational legislation.

There are those that worry about the lung cancer risk associated with smoking cannabis. It’s fair to say that smoking anything is bad for you. That’s why people using medical cannabis usually use a vaporiser or ingest the oil. There’s no need to smoke it. And, of course, if you’re terminally ill you’re probably not too worried about the long term side effects of anything.

I hope my arguments have given you a basis on which you can lend your support to the availability of medical cannabis. I know that a large part of the obstacle to this legislation is public perception. Politicians are concerned over being seen to ‘go soft’ on illegal drugs. In this regard, I think pointing out that we don’t deny morphine to terminally ill people just because some people abuse morphine is, perhaps, the best response.

It is my fervent hope that we see a change in legislation and that it will open the way for much needed research into the potential benefits of this plant. It may well hold the cure for many cancers and is already being used overseas to treat children with epilepsy and Dravetts syndrome. It is unlikely that there is sufficient time for any of this research to be of direct benefit to me but cancer is hereditary and I have a daughter.

PS: Alcohol is a group one carcinogen, proven to cause a whole raft of cancers. That’s not a reason to legalise cannabis. It’s just hypocritical to have alcohol so freely available when it’s of no possible benefit to anyone while cannabis remains illegal.