Discussing cancer, especially in Zambia where our only Cancer Diseases Hospital has obsolete equipment, is very depressing. On a daily basis, we hear stories about people who are dying unnecessarily; “they could have beat the cancer, but the system failed them”, “they needed radiotherapy but the machines are still not working”. But I think you have heard enough gloomy stories during this month, which is the breast cancer awareness month. Today, I want us to discuss something a little more hopeful – how we can significantly lower the risk of developing cancer by making some adjustments to our lifestyles.

Today, everything in this article is derived from Dr Thomas Seyfried, a Professor of Advanced Biology at Boston College and he has been carrying out research relating to cancer for decades. As some of you know by now, since losing my mother to endometrial cancer in February, I have been trying to understand this beast called cancer and most importantly, how to lower the risk of getting it. In this journey, Dr Seyfried’s work has stood out for me as he makes a compelling argument that cancer is a metabolic disease. Hundreds of years ago, before humans began to ingest highly processed foods and a ridiculous amount of carbohydrates, cancer was very rare. But in this day and age, where food has been highly commercialised to a point where things like sugar are added to it in order to get us hooked, several metabolic illnesses are on the rise – and cancer is one of them.

So, if cancer is a metabolic disease, how do we optimise our metabolism? Is it by eating four slices of bread with jam and tea with lots of sugar for breakfast, and then eating nshima like a bricklayer, like model Alice Muskuwa likes to say, for lunch and dinner? Absolutely not. And to make matters worse, many of us don’t even like to exercise. We just move from the car to our office desk and then back home which is in stark contrast to how our ancestors used live. They used to walk for miles before securing a proper nutrient dense meal. And also, they were not chewing all the time like we are now. If they woke up today and you offered them a snack, I am sure they would be astonished. But anyway, before I veer off into making this a weight loss article, let’s get back to the topic. Eating high amounts of carbohydrates and sugar destroys your metabolism and increases your chances of getting cancer exponentially – they break down into glucose which is one of the fuels which helps cancer survive and grow.

“Cancer cells can only use fermentable fuels. Fatty acids and ketone bodies are none fermentable fuels. They cannot be used by tumour cells but they can be used by normal cells that have normal mitochondria. So, the solution to the cancer problem is simultaneously targeting the fermentation of the cells, which is the glucose and glutamine by transitioning the body over to ketone bodies which allows the normal cells in the brain and all other organs to function, and fatty acids in the liver, tumour cells can’t use fatty acids and ketone bodies…this now puts massive pressure and kills the tumour cells without toxicity,” Dr Seyfried said when he featured on Dr Rangan Chatterjee’s Podcast recently.

Asked whether the solution was to stop people from taking any glucose and glutamine (an amino acid that is used in the biosynthesis of proteins), Dr Seyfried said glutamine could not be stopped and explained how his alternative cancer treatment works. Did I mention he is anti-chemotherapy and radiotherapy? He calls them poison.

“You can’t stop the glutamine because it is a non-essential amino acid and it is the most abundant amino acid in our body, it plays a massively important role in our gut, our immune system, the urea cycle. So, glutamine is, they call it a non-essential amino acid but for cancer, it is an essential amino acid. You can use diet and lifestyle to lower blood sugar for sure, but you need drugs that will interrupt the glutaminolysis pathway. So, we use a combination of diet and repurposed drugs for managing cancer where we bring the body into a state of very low glucose, high ketones and then we hit the surviving tumour cells with drugs that can disrupt the glutamine pathway but we pulse it, we don’t do it very aggressively knowing the value of glutamine for the normal physiological function of our body. You can’t go after glutamine aggressively because you are going to harm the body so you really have to understand evolutionary biology to manage cancer,” he said.

So, what are Dr Seyfried top tips on lowering the risk of getting cancer?

“Exercise is absolutely essential; bringing oxygen into your blood, good blood flow increases physiological function. If you can reduce the amounts of high carbohydrate foods that you eat with exercise, occasionally look at your glucose, ketone index. You are going to ward off cancer but also obesity, type two diabetes, cardiovascular disease and even dementia. All these things are linked to a common problem of disturbed metabolic homeostasis, so I think there are definitely things people can do and it is hard when you are sitting in traffic jams and then you have to rush up and sit at a computer somewhere so all these things are not consistent with our evolutionary origins but I think if people have become aware of these things, at least they can in their own lives try to adjust their situations to recognise this. And another thing is good sleep and managing stress,” he said.

Asked if he was hopeful that incidences of cancer occurrence would be reduced, he said absolutely.

“Absolutely. Warburg even said that we can reduce 80 per cent of our cancers and I believe that. We have a plan, we know what’s going on, we have an understanding of the mechanism by which cancer occurs and we also understand how we can manage it. The problem is getting that to be adapted in the clinics and getting the education, in the medical schools, to train the physicians that diet and lifestyle issues are really important for managing chronic diseases and here is the strategy and protocols for doing that and I think that’ll be the future,” said Dr Seyfried.