Fasting to Cure Cancer
One of the earliest claims of cancer being cured by fasting comes from an avid proponent of the practice, Upton Sinclair. His claim that fasting cures many diseases, including cancer, is summed up in a book entitled, “Terrors of the Table: The Curious History of Nutrition.” The author notes,
Without doubt the cheapest of the many prescriptions for dietary health was fasting. The cult has been around since ancient times, but enjoyed a wide resurgence towards the beginning of the 20th century. … A fervent apostle of the creed was the inimitable Upton Sinclair, author of (among many other novels) The Jungle and the most credulous of faddists. He published in 1911 his book The Fasting Cure in which he assured his readers that a strict regime of deprivation would cure any of a long inventory of diseases, including cancer, tuberculosis, asthma, syphilis, locomotor ataxia, and, to cap it all, the common cold. In what passes for a caveat he remarks: 'I have known two or three cases of people dying while they were fasting, but I feel quite certain that the fast did not cause their death'" (Gratzer, 201).
In more modern times, the idea of fasting aiding in and being the cause of people being healed from cancer, seems to be gaining momentum. Three examples of these claims come from three different people. First, Dr. David Jockers promotes the idea of fasting as a healer of cancer with this headline: “Using Fasting Strategies for Natural Cancer Healing.” Second comes from another person who was diagnosed with Stage IV ovarian cancer at the age of 19 and who went on to become a doctor, and now claims fasting contributes to the healing of patients from cancer. Her name is Dr. Nasha Winters, and she tells her story and makes her claims on the Diet Doctor Podcast (Scher). The last example is a medical foundation based on the idea water only fasts fix many health ailments, including cancer. The TrueNorth Health Foundation makes many claims about the benefits of fasting and one of their claims is of a woman who was healed of “stage IIIa, grade 1 follicular lymphoma” after she completed a ”21-day medically supervised, water-only fast” and then began eating a plant food only diet (Myers, et al.).
Using Michael Shermer’s “Baloney Detection” questions, I will analyze the claim that fasting cures cancer. This paper will note each of his questions and then provide an answer to the question.
How reliable is the source of the claim? The original claim, from Sinclair, does not appear to have any scientific basis. While I’ve not read his book The Fasting Cure, I did peruse a copy of it online and found that he did not cite any studies, rather, he based his claims from his own experiences and testimonials of others. As for Jockers, Winters, and The TrueNorth Foundation, it would take a trained scientist to investigate their studies and determine if their conclusions indicate deliberate bias. However, all three of these sources do stake their reputation on their claims.
Does this source often make similar claims? Sinclair not only claims that fasting cures cancer, but as previously cited in this paper, he claims fasting cures all kinds of other diseases. With a plethora of outlandish claims, he seems to have gone beyond the scope of the facts. As for Jockers, his site makes other interesting claims related to fasting. Reviewing headlines from his website, one of his articles claims “How a 3 Day Fast Resets the Immune System.” As for Winters, she claims that not only does fasting aid in healing cancer, but she takes an alternative and holistic approach to beating cancer. Her website states, “Dr. Winters considers the body as one interrelated, integrated system and believes cancer comes from the body being neglected at some level via nourishment, physical stress, psychological stress, or a combination of those stressors” (“MATC Book | Dr. Nasha”). Lastly, the TrueNorth Foundation site strongly advocates for the use of “water-only fasting and exclusively whole-plant-food diet” for the health of the body (“TrueNorth Health Foundation | Live Longer, Live Better”).
Have the claims been verified by another source? While an extensive review of all the material from Sinclair, Jockers, Winters, and the TrueNorth Health Foundation would be a significant challenge, all of them, except Sinclair, provide ample citations of studies that back up their claims. It should also be noted that the general subject of fasting in the aiding of healing cancer, does not have a lot of research to date. One peer-reviewed article states,
Clinical research studies of fasting with robust designs and high levels of clinical evidence are sparse in the literature. Whereas the few randomized controlled trials and observational clinical outcomes studies support the existence of a health benefit from fasting, substantial further research in humans is needed before the use of fasting as a health intervention can be recommended” (Horne et al.)
Therefore, while there are some studies that begin to draw connections and conclusions that fasting may heal patients from cancer, the evidence to date has not been fully verified by a broad spectrum of sources.
How does the claim fit with what we know about how the world works? The generally accepted, main cause of cancer is the mutation of DNA (Mayo Clinic). There is not much a person can do to be healed from genetic mutations. However, in the same Mayo Clinic article, it cites that obesity is a contributing factor for DNA mutations and subsequently individuals ought to “maintain a healthy weight.” Therefore, if an individual safely fasts, it may contribute to him or her having a healthy weight and even contribute to the healing process. This is what some studies are trying to understand. Beyond this connection, we know that chemotherapy and other drugs must be used to fight an active case of cancer and that fasting alone won’t heal the person. Additionally, we also know that fasting can be extremely difficult even under the best of circumstances, let alone having to suffer through side effects of chemotherapy at the same time as fasting. Even assuming fasting is effective at fighting cancer, the feasibility of the patient completing a fasting routine would have to be considered.
Has anyone gone out of the way to disprove the claim, or has only supportive evidence been sought? While no research has been designed to disprove fasting as an effective treatment to heal cancer, “[a] group of researchers recently started to develop the so called ‘fasting mimicking diets’” which would imply that fasting is not needed, per se, to cure some cancers (Caccialanza). In these studies, the patient does not actually fast, but modifies his or her eating habits to mimic the effects of fasting. If these and future studies are proven efficacious, it would demonstrate that fasting does not heal patients from certain types of cancer.
Does the preponderance of evidence point to the claimant’s conclusion or to a different one? Clearly, from the lack of ample studies proving that fasting heals cancer, it is apparent that most of the evidence indicates that chemotherapy and drugs are more effective at healing cancer than fasting alone. And while some studies and cases indicate that fasting aided in the healing process, such as the case with Winters, other studies reveal that fasting in cancer patients introduces other serious health risk factors such as malnutrition and sarcopenia (Caccialanza).
Is the claimant employing the accepted rules of reason and tools of research, or have these been abandoned in favor of others that lead to the desired conclusion? Sinclair does not employ generally accepted rules of reason and research tools. However, Jockers, Winters and the TrueNorth Health Foundation do employ them in search of well-established and reasoned conclusions. Sinclair, on the other hand, begins with a desired conclusion and sacrifices the integrity of the scientific process. While he may have been influential, his forte was not in scientific research.
Is the claimant providing an explanation for the observed phenomena or merely denying the existing explanation? Jockers, Winters, and the TrueNorth Health Foundation do much to explain the connection between obesity and cancer and then go on to explain that by addressing the nutrition of the cancer patient and even having the patient fast, cancer cells are deprived of the energy needed to grow and, that fasting activates the immune system to kill cancer cells (Myers). Sinclair, however, lacks any technical explanation for his claim that fasting heals cancer.
If the claimant proffers a new explanation, does it account for as many phenomena as the old explanation did? Claims made my Jockers, Winters, and the TrueNorth Health Foundation do not dispute the explanation for the cause of cancer. Rather, they are focused on factors that contribute to the growth and subsequent fight against cancer cells. While genetics may be the biggest factor in a person developing cancer, the claims of Jockers, Winters and the TrueNorth Health Foundation are made to widen the aperture of the studies in the fight against cancer, as opposed to offering a new explanation for the cause and cure for cancer.
Do the claimant’s personal beliefs and biases drive the conclusions, or vice versa? Jockers has an entire business built around books, recipes, programs, and lifestyle coaching. While Jockers cites many research articles, the bias for financial success may be a factor. For Winters, she faced imminent death from cancer and through much of her research, has found a way to survive. Therefore, she may suffer a strong bias from personal experience. She too has developed a business around her success story. The TruthNorth Health Foundation is a 501 (c)(3) non-profit organization which is organized around the idea of researching and finding benefits from water-only fasting and whole-plant-food diet. No significant bias is evident from reviewing their informational web pages. Lastly, Sinclair may have had ulterior motives for his claims that fasting heals cancer. He sought political and culture influence throughout his career and therefore may have had other motivations for making his claims.
In conclusion, we must ask, does fasting heal cancer? After conducting a lot of research on this topic, it does not appear that it can be definitively claimed that when patients fast, they will be healed from cancer. As noted previously, this area of research is young and is growing with more studies investigating the link between fasting and cancer cell reduction. As scientists and researchers pinpoint the exact effects of fasting on cancer cells, they may eventually conclude there are other ways to achieve the same outcomes without forcing patients to endure long fasts.
Caccialanza, Riccardo et al. “To fast, or not to fast before chemotherapy, that is the question.” BMC cancer vol. 18,1 337. 27 Mar. 2018, doi:10.1186/s12885-018-4245-5
Gratzer, Walter. Terrors of the Table : The Curious History of Nutrition, Oxford University Press, 2005. ProQuest Ebook Central, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/apus/detail.action?docID=272784. Created from apus on 2022-06-19 17:45:16.
Horne, Benjamin D, et al. “Health Effects of Intermittent Fasting: Hormesis or Harm? A Systematic Review.” The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, vol. 102, no. 2, 1 July 2015, pp. 464–470, academic.oup.com/ajcn/article/102/2/464/4564588, 10.3945/ajcn.115.109553.
Jockers, David. “How a 3 Day Fast Resets the Immune System.” DrJockers.com, 22 Oct. 2019, drjockers.com/3-day-fast-immune-system/. Accessed 20 June 2022.
---. “Using Fasting Strategies for Natural Cancer Healing.” DrJockers.com, 27 Mar. 2018, drjockers.com/fasting-strategies-cancer/. Accessed 19 June 2022.
“MATC Book | Dr. Nasha.” Dr. Nasha, 11 Jan. 2019, www.drnasha.com/matcbook/.
Mayo Clinic. “Cancer - Symptoms and Causes.” Mayo Clinic, Mayo Clinic, 12 Dec. 2018, www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/cancer/symptoms-causes/syc-20370588.
Myers, Toshia R, et al. “Follow-up of Water-Only Fasting and an Exclusively Plant Food Diet in the Management of Stage IIIa, Low-Grade Follicular Lymphoma.” BMJ Case Reports, 9 Aug. 2018, p. bcr-2018-225520, 10.1136/bcr-2018-225520. Accessed 19 June 2022.
Scher, Bret. “Diet Doctor Podcast #34 — Dr. Nasha Winters.” Diet Doctor, July 2019, www.dietdoctor.com/video/podcast/episode-34-dr-nasha-winters. Accessed 19 June 2022.
Shermer, Michael Brant. “Michael Shermer.” Michael Shermer, 1 Nov. 2001, michaelshermer.com/sciam-columns/baloney-detection/. Accessed 19 June 2022.
“TrueNorth Health Foundation | Live Longer, Live Better.” www.truenorthhealthfoundation.org, www.truenorthhealthfoundation.org/.