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A New Method for Chemo Symptom Relief

Sometimes we feel like cancer is unstoppable, growing inside with abandon. Luckily, new research sheds light on cancers one big weakness: starvation.


The Research

Cancer loves to eat and eat, taking the energy from our bodies to grow bigger and stronger. But something interesting happens when we don’t eat food. The body, naturally made for fasting, flips a switch, sending its cells into conservation and restoration mode. The body’s cells stop growing and reproducing, and instead start focusing on maintenance and toxin protection [i][ii]. Cancer cells don’t have this mechanism.

This presents a special opportunity when it comes to chemotherapy. Chemo presents a huge toxic load to the body, which helps kill cancer cells but also harms our normal cells. However, studies have shown that fasting for a period of time before chemo and after chemo can have protective effects on normal cells, since they turn on their repair and maintenance functions. The jury is still out on whether fasting makes chemo more effective on the cancer itself. But the implication is, if patients can fast before and after chemo to reduce the harmful effects on their bodies, chemo doses could be increased so they are more effective in killing the cancer.

While research is still in it’s preliminary stages, early cases show symptom reduction with fasting has been staggering. One study that looked at 10 patients undergoing chemotherapy who elected to fast. Patients fasted for 48-140 hours before treatment, and 5-56 hours after treatment. All of the patients showed symptom reduction, and for some, fasting was highly effective [i].

While symptoms usually get worse with every round of chemo, even patients who experienced significant symptoms during the initial rounds who then fasted for the later rounds saw symptom relief. One woman who experienced very low appetite, severe muscle spasms, significant fatigue, mouth sores, easy bruising and bowel discomfort during 5 doses of chemo fasted on the sixth dose and only experienced mild fatigue and weakness, experiencing none of her other previous symptoms.

Again, it’s not clear if fasting helps the chemotherapy’s effectiveness in killing the cancer itself. Some studies in mice do show promising results. One study found that when mice with cancer fasted during chemo treatment, their tumors were smaller and they lived cancer free longer than mice who just had chemo alone [iii]. In one phase, all of the mice who didn’t fast with treatment died, but 25% of the mice who fasted lived on cancer free. More studies are needed on humans to see if fasting can actually increase a person’s chances of survival.


What Can You Do

Since the research on fasting and chemotherapy is still so new, it’s important to talk to your doctor before you or your loved one decides to try it. However, all studies in humans found that short-term fasting was safe, and that the subjects regained the weight they lost between treatments.  Also, one researcher suggests that it might be dangerous to start eating after treatment too quickly, so certainly wait 24-48 hours after chemo to begin eating again [iii].

If evidence continues to mount that fasting can support the success of chemotherapy, the implications for cancer treatment are huge. While millions are being spent on new drugs to alleviate symptoms or target specific cancers, fasting is a cheap solution that can kill two birds with one stone. It just might be the push your body needs to stay strong and beat cancer.


[i] Safdie FM, Dorff T, Quinn D, Fontana L, Wei M, Lee C, Cohen P, Longo VD. Fasting and cancer treatment in humans: A case series report. Aging. 2009; 1(12): 988-1007.
[ii] Laviano A, Fanelli FR. Toxicity in chemotherapy — when less is more. N Engl J Med. 2012; 366: 24.
[iii] Lee C, Raffaghello L, Brandhorst S, Safdei FM, Bianchi G, Martin-Montalvo A, Pistoia V, Wei M, Hwang S, Merlino A, Emionite L, de Cabo R, Longo VD. Fasting cycles retard growth of tumors and sensitize a range of cancer cell types to chemotherapy. Science Translational Medicine. 2012; 4(124): 124ra27.
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