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How Effective Is Chemotherapy for Colon, Lung, Breast, and Prostate Cancers?

Michael Greger M.D. FACLM via Nutrition Facts– How effective is chemotherapy for colon, lung, breast, and prostate cancers?

“Over the last several decades…medicine has waged a major war against cancer, concentrating on earlier diagnosis and improved therapy. The war is not being won. Nevertheless, medicine shows few signs of admitting that its strategy may be flawed. In this it resembles a World War I general who stated: ‘Casualties: huge. Ground gained: negligible. Conclusion: press on.’”

If you look at the contribution of cancer-killing chemotherapy to five-year survival in cancer patients, it’s on the order of only about 2 percent. As you can see below and at 0:50 in my video How to Win the War on Cancer, we’ve gotten pretty good at treating some pediatric cancers, testicular cancer, and Hodgkin’s disease.

But, if you look at our most common cancers—that is, of the colon, lung, breast, and prostate—the success rate is only about 1 percent. That means out of nearly 14,000 colon cancer patients, for example, only 146 lived out five years, thanks to chemotherapy. The chance of survival benefit of chemo is about one in a hundred, but doctors don’t tell patients that. “Any new chemotherapy drug is still promoted as a major breakthrough in the fight against cancer, only to be quietly rejected without the fanfare that accompanied its arrival.” Indeed, the “minimal impact on survival in the more common cancers conflicts with the perceptions of many patients who feel they are receiving a treatment that will significantly enhance their chances of cure…In view of the minimal impact of cytotoxic chemotherapy on 5-year survival, and the lack of any major progress over the last 20 years, it follows that the main role of cytotoxic chemotherapy is in palliation.” It can shrink tumors, relieving pain and pressure, but that doesn’t tend to translate into living any longer. “The failure of therapy, coupled with the realization that the overwhelming majority of cancer is related to environmental, particularly lifestyle factors, dictates that prevention should be our foremost aim.”

Cancer is largely a preventable disease, but it does require major lifestyle changes. Of the millions of cancer diagnoses every year, as many as 90 to 95 percent of the cancers are caused by lifestyle factors, with only 5 to 10 percent caused by bad genes. We know this because of “enormous differences in the incidence of particular forms of cancer in differing geographical and socio-economic situations” around the world, which then change when people move from one place to another. For example, as you can see below and at 2:40 in my video, breast cancer rates differ by an order of magnitude, with the lowest rates in parts of Africa and Asia, until those Africans and Asians move and start eating and living like Americans, Argentinians, Europeans, or Australians.

So, “there is need for a major reappraisal of how the problem of cancer is approached.” The key to winning the war on cancer is prevention, which not only works better, but “has the great advantage that it entails nothing worse than nicotine [or jellybean] withdrawal symptoms. On the other hand, cancer treatment, even when successful, often exposes the patient to much suffering, both physical and psychological. Indeed, some cancer treatments are considered worse than the disease.”

Most importantly, a healthy lifestyle can nip cancer in the bud, whereas, by definition, early diagnosis and treatment don’t change the cancer rate or the number of people getting cancer in the first place. In terms of cancer prevention and treatment with nutrition, the “consumption of nutrients of animal-based foods were associated with increased cancer risk while nutrients of plant-based food were associated with decreasing risk.” It’s not enough just to avoid the bad stuff, though. Eating is pretty much “a zero-sum game.” Everything we put in our mouth is a lost opportunity to put something even more healthful in our mouth. It’s not just about avoiding foods with cancer-promoting properties. We need to eat foods with active cancer-suppressing mechanisms. By “wholistic nutrition,” we’re talking about whole foods, and we should get their nutrients not from extracts or pills, but from the whole foods themselves.

Ultimately, “cancer development is primarily a nutrition-responsive disease rather than a genetic disease,” but, again, we aren’t talking about nutritional supplements; we’re talking about “whole, intact food.”

I’m very excited to share some of Professor Emeritus Colin Cambell’s six new papers on redefining the role of nutrition in medicine.

For an overview on the power of diet, see my How Not to Die from Cancer and The Best Advice on Diet and Cancer videos. I’ve produced hundreds of videos about the role of different foods and food consumption patterns on different cancers. Browse all of the titles through the search bar on my website


Key Takeaways

  • Despite a “major war against cancer,” chemotherapy only contributes about 2 percent to five-year survival in cancer patients.
  • Although chemotherapy treatment is fairly effective for some pediatric cancers, testicular cancer, and Hodgkin’s disease, our most common cancers (of the colon, lung, breast, and prostate) only have about a 1 percent success rate, which means, for example, out of about 14,000 colon cancer patients, only 146 live for five years, thanks to chemo.
  • Chemotherapy can shrink tumors and relieve pain and pressure, but does not tend to result in longer life.
  • Up to 90 to 95 percent of cancers are caused by lifestyle factors, and bad genes are responsible for only 5 to 10 percent.
  • The key to actually winning the war on cancer is prevention, not treatment.
  • A healthy lifestyle can prevent cancer, whereas early diagnosis and treatment—by definition—do not change the cancer rate or number of people getting cancer to begin with.
  • Animal-based foods are associated with increased cancer risk, while plant-based foods are associated with decreased risk. We should get our nutrients from whole, intact plant foods rather than extracts, pills, or supplements.

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