When I was a surgical resident there was a 36 year old man who had horrible colon cancer, that would, in a few months, kill him. After getting over the shock of having colon cancer, and that it was particularly aggressive, he asked me, “Doc, how come I got this. I’ve been a vegan since I was 14 years old.” Somewhere he, as many Vegans, was under the assumption that a plant based life would protect him from cancer.
In my early days in surgical practice we had several members of the 7th Day Adventist Church who were patients of mine- all with various forms of cancer. Unlike some of my vegan patients, they did not have the belief that their vegetarian lifestyle would keep them from developing cancer, but seemed to accept it as a disease of people who live long enough to get past the diseases of childhood.
Because of my well known interest in nutrition and lifestyle my practice became a favorite of vegans and vegetarians. A number of vegans and vegetarians would ask to be referred to me, convinced that their physician was wrong with their diagnosis of cancer.
In The China Study T. Collin Campbell makes the assertion that cancer can be cured by a vegetarian diet – that if only people would get away from meats cancer could be gone.
To quote: “ Furthermore, a pattern was beginning to emerge: nutrients from animal-based foods increased tumor development while nutrients from plant-based foods decreased tumor development. ” Campbell opines “There is enough evidence now that the U.S. government should be discussing the idea that the toxicity of our diet is the single biggest cause of cancer.”
That phrase resonates with a lot of people, because we want there to be a single factor – something simple we can wrap our simplistic brains around. Most pseudoscience relies on people wanting simple answers that don’t involve complex pathways. In fact, most pseudoscience and most charlatans rely on people being simple minded and not critical thought. In this case, Campbell, who is well trained, went global from rats to humans, from high doses of one milk protein to all animal proteins. We want scientists to think globally, but when we venture into fields not our own, we need to learn about those fields – in this case, Campbell is not a physician, but a physiologist who wants to relate rats to humans.
Campbell continues, “There is enough evidence now that local breast cancer alliances, and prostate and colon cancer institutions, should be discussing the possibility of providing information to Americans everywhere on how a whole foods, plant-based diet may be an incredibly effective anti-cancer medicine.”
In the book Campbell relates how he tried to talk a woman out of getting a mastectomy to prevent breast cancer. The woman has the gene for breast cancer, which is a high likelihood that she, like her mother, sister, and aunts, would develop breast cancer. Campbell, who told her he was not a physician, was pressing his case that if she would change her diet, she would be protected against having cancer. well, lets quote him:
“I told her a little bit about the China Study and about the important role of nutrition. I told her that just because a person has the gene for a disease does not mean that they are destined to get the cancer: prominent studies reported that only a tiny minority of cancers can be solely blamed on genes. I was surprised at how little she knew about nutrition. She thought genetics was the only factor that determined risk. She didn’t realize that food was an important factor in breast cancer as well. We talked for twenty or thirty minutes, a brief time for such an important matter. By the end of the conversation I had the feeling that she was not satisfied with what I told her. Perhaps it was my conservative, scientific way of talking, or my reluctance to give her a recommendation. Maybe, I thought, she had already made up her mind to do the procedure.” He regretted that he was not more forceful, “When I think back to that conversation I had with Betty, I now feel that I could have made a stronger statement about the role nutrition plays in breast cancer. I still would not have been able to give her clinical advice, but the information I now know might have been of more use to her. So what would I tell her now?”
Here is what The China Study Statistics really look like: when you compare the villages that consume the most meat- there is a negative correlation – meaning, the more meat, the less disease. The highest risk for colon cancer in the China study was with a parasite infection called shistosomiasis – a known factor for colon and rectal cancer. Once you remove that parasite from the equation, meat is no longer an association in the China Study – at all. There is a lovely, very detailed analysis of this, with more statistics, here.
The China Study is touted to be a comprehensive study of why people in China have less heart disease and cancer than in other countries. They went to rural villages, taking the death statistics from a decade before. They collected blood samples from everyone- put them together and ran the chemistry profile.
The problems with that analysis are several: First, it is a population study asking people what they ate: while these are traditional villages, and what they eat is traditional- at least that is the premise – these studies are always inaccurate. Second, the death certificates for these villages are inaccurate. Even today Chinese physicians studying heart disease will note that the rate of heart disease isn’t known in many villages because when people died they didn’t always list that it was from heart disease. The villages did not do an autopsy, so unless it was an obvious cancer, there was no way of knowing if the person wasted away from an infection, or from an underlying cancer. Pooling the blood to get a “cholesterol” reading – means that some people could have high cholesterol, and others low– and since we know today that dietary cholesterol does not effect blood cholesterol the premise of that sampling was in error.
Today most scientists look at the China Study as cute for the time- but inaccurate, flawed, and outdated. The statistics, when taken apart by others, find conclusions different than those reported.
Back to Vegans and Cancer.
That a vegan diet could prevent cancer is bunk. One need look no further than Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple Computer, who lived a vegetarian diet his life, and died of cancer. Sadly, Jobs didn’t get the surgery his doctors recommended for over a year. When his surgeons operated on him they found that the tumor had spread. Jobs used that year trying out the alternative therapy of “boosting” his immune system using any combination of vegetables and fruits.
Other more famous vegans and vegetarians who have died of cancer or heart disease include:
Linda McCartney – Paul McCartney’s first wife, died of breast cancer.
Robin Gibb – of the Bee Gees, died of stomach cancer
Adam Yauch, Beastie Boys, died of cancer
Harvey Milstein, proponent of the raw food hygiene movement died of colon cancer
George Harrison, Beatle, died of lung cancer
Eva Ekvall, Miss Venezuela, died of breast cancer age 29
Vihara Youkta, dancer and wife of famous raw foodist Viktoras Kulvinskas, died of cancer.
As much as we would wish that a single diet would prevent cancer, it doesn’t. It is irresponsible to say that it would. I wish there was a single answer- but that simplistic, even magical thinking, doesn’t work. For Campbell to assert that a vegan diet could even turn off cancer in the face of some other carcinogenic agent, based on his studies with rats- is absurd.
Until then, The China Study remains a work of pure fiction and a source of “false superiority” for those who wish to believe a lie.
Here is the science behind a bit of it:
Cancer is a complicated topic, and not all cancers work the same – but lets take breast cancer as an example. The two genes that are identified with breast cancer are BRCA1 and BRCA2, which stand for breast cancer susceptibility gene 1 and breast cancer susceptibility gene 2, respectively.
BRCA1 and BRCA2 belong to a class of genes known as tumor suppressors. In normal cells, BRCA1 and BRCA2 help prevent uncontrolled cell growth. Mutation of these genes means that cell growth is less suppressed. Think of the genes as brakes, that keep the cell from multiplying too much and too fast, these slow it down. Remove the brakes and the cells divide rapidly, and without control. Women who have this mutation in their genetic material have a 60% chance of developing breast cancer, as opposed to women in general that have a 12% chance. The theory that Campbell proposed was that a vegan diet would somehow suppress the lack of suppressing gene. In spite of years of looking, and many papers stating that some fruits and vegetables would diminish this- it has not ever been shown to be true. One would think, given the conviction of Campbell’s book, that there would be a clear difference between vegans and meat eaters with this population. Sadly, the answer is more complicated than diet.
Campbell, T. Colin; Thomas M. Campbell II (2006-06-01). The China Study: The Most Comprehensive Study of Nutrition Ever Conducted And the Startling Implications for Diet, We (p. 182). Perseus Books Group. Kindle Edition.
Dr. Terry Simpson
Dr. Terry Simpson received his undergraduate and graduate degrees from the University of Chicago where he spent several years in the Kovler Viral Oncology laboratories doing genetic engineering. He found he liked people more than petri dishes, and went to medical school. Dr. Simpson, a weight loss surgeon is an advocate of culinary medicine. The first surgeon to become certified in Culinary Medicine, he believes teaching people to improve their health through their food and in their kitchen. On the other side of the world, he has been a leading advocate of changing health care to make it more "relationship based," and his efforts awarded his team the Malcolm Baldrige award for healthcare in 2011 for the NUKA system of care in Alaska and in 2013 Dr Simpson won the National Indian Health Board Area Impact Award. A frequent contributor to media outlets discussing health related topics and advances in medicine, he is also a proud dad, husband, author, cook, and surgeon “in that order.” For media inquiries, please visit www.terrysimpson.com.