Who could fail to be cheered by the news that the Marchioness of Worcester – environmental campaigner, mother of three, filmmaker and thoroughly modern Marchioness – is in remission from breast cancer? The Marchioness was diagnosed in 2009. Next year, she will join the 85 per cent of women who survive it longer than five years. Although Tracy, married to the Duke of Beaufort’s heir Harry, has not talked about her cancer before – “it is so boring” – her story is now attracting attention thanks to her controversial views on what aided the treatment.
For while confirming she underwent chemotherapy and radiotherapy, the Marchioness, a former director of the Soil Association, the charity that promotes organic food, added that an “alkaline diet”, which bans processed food, meat and alcohol, helped her overall health. “My doctor said he had never known anyone be quite so well. I would put it down to complementary medicine and ‘alkalining’ my body. I am almost religious about it now.”
Despite making clear the diet was an “additional” therapy, the Marchioness’s enthusiasm has caused some concern. Will the alkaline diet find its way into the panoply of cancer “cures” at the expense of mainstream medicine?
Diet-based alternative cancer regimes are not new, many draw heavily on a system developed by the German physician Max Gerson in the 1920s, which suggests that cancer is due to the accumulation of unspecified toxins. To rid the body of these, the patient must eat a predominantly vegetarian diet, including hourly glasses of organic juice and dietary supplements. Patients also receive enemas of coffee, castor oil and even hydrogen peroxide.
By contrast, Tracy Worcester’s diet sounds relatively normal: treatment centres on making body fluids such as urine less acidic apparently by increased consumption of raw vegetables, supplements such as omega 3, and avoiding meat. The claims of efficacy centre on theories that acid somehow “fosters” disease, or that cancer cells can grow faster in an acid environment.
Thousands of studies are carried out on foodstuffs to see if eating or avoiding them will have an effect on cancerous cells. We are assailed by well-researched accounts of the benefits of vegetables and fruits.
However, we know the vast majority of cancer is due to environmental factors: researchers from the University of Texas put it at 90-95 per cent in a 2006 report in the journal Pharmaceutical Research. Their conclusions? Cancer prevention involves increased ingestion of fruits and vegetables, moderate intake of alcohol, caloric restriction, exercise, minimal meat consumption and use of whole grains.
But the key is that this is preventive advice – not the basis of a curative regime.Jean Slocombe, Cancer Research UK’s senior information nurse, says: “Many breast cancer patients feel better and more in control of their illness when they do something proactive such as following a certain diet. But there is no strong scientific evidence to suggest that eating organic foods and following alternative diets can treat breast cancer or reduce the risk of it coming back.”
Robin Pritchard, spokesman for the Dimbleby Cancer Care charity, says: “A lot of research we have funded has found that any kind of complementary therapy can have a really positive effect, improving the sense of wellbeing.”
Learning how to eat healthily may even help recovery, found a 2011 report in the British Journal of Cancer. Evidence suggests that a low-fat, high-fibre diet might be protective against cancer recurrence and progression.
So might the Marchioness’s akaline diet have had more than a placebo effect?
While countless books suggest alkaline eating can make you slimmer and fitter, scientists point out that the body self-regulates so efficiently that it’s virtually impossible to change the pH balance of its fluids. And the American Institute for Cancer Research warns that the idea that we can become “less acid” is a “myth”.
Interestingly, though, a 2011 Canadian review in the Journal of Environmental and Public Health of published scientific literature found an alkaline diet could have some benefits, including improved bone health, reduced muscle wasting, as well as mitigating chronic diseases such as hypertension and strokes. Lead researcher Dr Gerry Schwalfenberg said: “Alkalinity may result in added benefit for some chemotherapeutic agents that require a higher pH.”
Could the Marchioness’s passion for organic food have improved the efficacy of her chemotherapy? More studies are called for. But, by eating lots of fruit and vegetables and no meat or processed food, she is improving the odds against recurrence of cancer, and enjoying their preventive effects against heart disease and diabetes.