When I first heard of combining the ancient healing practice of water fasting with chemotherapy my ears pricked up. This was going to be interesting.
Diagnosed with HER2 enriched breast cancer, a fast growing aggressive little bugger, I was calling on the big guns. 3 months of chemotherapy (TCH) combined with 12 months of a targeted drug known as Herceptin was going to save my life. Yet I was conflicted with all the natural health ideology I love.
There is no reason we can’t do both, I think this is the ideal situation for most cancer diagnosis. Supporting your body as much as possible while going through modern cancer treatment.
I believe in the bodies innate desire to heal. To use a multifaceted approach encompassing body, mind and spirit. This was going to be a life turning point, Cancer was a message shouting at me that my body and soul needed attention and I was going to honour this.
Caring for your body when it needs you most
It is no secret that chemotherapy drugs are both powerful and toxic. I feel it is a great shame how little information or encouragement is given to patients to support their bodies while on treatment.
My chemo education appointment consisted of “You don’t need to change your diet, just eat healthy (?) and “you can drink alcohol but only a few glasses”… I found this absurd as drinking alcohol is a risk factor for developing breast cancer so why would you give it a green light? And so much is known about the importance of good nutrition in fighting cancer.
I left the roomed stunned, disappointed and to be frank, not that surprised.
Why water fast?
I wanted to be as proactive as I could be, I wanted to protect my healthy cells while chemotherapy targeted the renegade ones. Enter water fasting.
Professor of gerontology, Dr Valter Longo, specialises in the study of longevity and has completed much research into the medical benefits of fasting. His earlier studies were conducted on cancer-induced mice (thankyou furry friends) Finding the mice who fasted in combination with chemo recovered from cancer, yet the mice who didn’t fast, sadly passed away.
Longo and his team have moved into the human studies now with the pilot research is looking quite positive. Being that water fasting has such a long history in healing it doesn’t surprise me that we can utilise its benefits in our modern age.
Researchers have found that fasting activates the immune system, making cancer cells more vulnerable to both the body’s natural immunity and chemotherapy. Fasting raises the levels of bone marrow cells that generate immune system cells, such as T cells, B cells and “natural killer” cells that infiltrate tumors. Research continues but I was more than keen to give it a go.
My rationale is if I am using these toxic drugs I want them to be as powerfully available to the cancer cells as possible combined with doing all I can to strengthen and protect the rest of my body.
Like get in there drugs, do your thing and let’s get the hell out of here as quickly as possible.
Is it safe?
Longo and his fellow researchers have found that water-only fasting in combination with chemotherapy is safe for humans.
The trial suggested that when our body is deprived of calories via fasting healthy cells assume there is a famine going on and slow down to preserve energy.
Regular cells go from growing and replicating to maintaining and repairing, unlike cancer cells which don’t respond to fasting so keep on replicating at their fast pace. This fast replication makes them more susceptible to treatments like chemotherapy and radiation which specifically target rapidly growing cells.
How to Water Fast
Chemotherapy drugs are only ‘active’ for a short window of time this is when both the healing and the damage is done. It is recommended that during this active window to refrain from all herbs and supplements, solid foods and drink only water. Then let chemo have its way with you.
The length of water fasting at this point is recommended to begin 48hrs before treatment and to conclude 24 hrs after or by the longest half-life of drugs used whichever is longer.
Most chemotherapy drugs remain in the body for only a few hours or days. They’re broken down by the kidneys and liver and excreted in the urine, stool, or sweat. For myself, it was an 18hr window. Which I counted from as soon as I was unplugged from the infusion.
Rebalance the body
Cancer as a state of quite some in-balance and chemo and radiation further tip the scale, despite disabling and/or killing cancer cells along the way. What we can do is help to bring back the balance by nurturing and nourishing our bodies with as much love as we can, wholefood plant-based foods, time of spiritual reflections and healing, being with those we love who make us laugh and becoming present to all that we are and all that we have to give.
I encourage you to honour the battle, build up your strength, nourish those healthy cells, and give your body as much support as possible. You deserve it for as long as your time on this planet lasts.
Tips on fasting
Based on Dr Longo research it is recommended 48 hrs of only water fasting or 4 days of fasting-mimicking diet before chemo, The fasting-mimicking diet is eating less than 500 calories a day, usually made up from miso soup and lightly steam green vegetables.
You may find the fasting-mimicking diet your sanity saver, for me it would probably be more torture, do what suits. Then continue for 24hrs after chemo or the half-life of the drugs, whichever is longest.
If the thought of not eating terrifies you let me offer a few tips:
- Find out exactly when you will be hooked up to chemo and count back 48hrs, being able to eat in the morning of your first day of fasting can really help the mental battle. This is not an invitation to a 7-course breakfast but a tip to keep your sanity.
- For the first 24hrs keep relatively busy, your energy levels will be fine it’s your brain that needs to be occupied. The truth is most of us in the developed world eat way too much anyway.
- If you are the cook in the house declare a holiday. You don’t want to be making the kids’ meals while water fasting. Order takeaway if you have no one to step in for you.
- The second day again keep busy but it is wise not to do anything too energetic as the low calories can leave you light headed.
- The day of chemo is the easiest I think, as you are just lying around. Take a book, podcast or watch a movie.
- Once finished treatment go home and straight to bed. You can ask if your treatment appointment can be made as late finishing as possible.
- On waking you are almost there! Yipee… and you probably feel a bit crappy so the last stretch keep rested.
- Break the fast easy with fresh juice or small pieces of fruit. Start with light salads, smoothies then ease your way back into heavier foods over the next few days
- Eat a whole food plant based low fat diet in between cycles a proven cancer preventing and nutrient rich lifestyle.
- Consider intermittent fasting of 12 hour window as there is evidence it helps prevent reoccurence.
- If you’re taking any oral chemotherapy medications, do not fast unless you know it is safe to take your medications on an empty stomach.
- If you have other chronic diseases such as kidney disease, diabetes, liver disease, gout, heart disease, hypoglycemia, serious mental health concerns, and autoimmune disease etc than refrain from fasting.
- Always discuss with your oncologist, mine was very supportive, print out research papers to educate them as they might not be aware. Remember fasting is safe and if you get push back from the doctor which feels unsubstantiated (no real reason) consider a second opinion
- Later stages of cancer may not respond as effectively, discuss with an oncologist, you may be in a situation which would be better to have nutrient-dense vegetable juices and whole food plant-based meals.