Convincing Patients That You Can't 'Starve' Cancer

Kate Hitchcock, MD, PhD


April 12, 2022

"Ladies and gentlemen, attention, please!
Come in close where everyone can see!
I got a tale to tell, it isn't gonna cost a dime!
(And if you believe that,
we're gonna get along just fine.)"
     —Stephen King, Needful Things

There are so many cancer myths out there that it's easy to despair of ever having time to address real science.

One of the most pervasive among my patients is the concept that you can starve cancer to death, thereby skipping chemo, radiation, surgery, and all of their attendant problems. I have 15-20 patients on treatment at a time, and I'll bet that I have to tackle this one at least once a week.

The root causes of this seem to be (1) poor science education, an embarrassment in a country in which everyone is eligible for 13 years of free education, and (2) people who sell books and "alternative remedies," taking advantage of our patients' fear, intentionally or otherwise, to line their own pockets.

It took me a long time to figure out how to address this, but I have gotten nearly universal traction with this approach: I remind them that cancer cells are their cells. Whatever they eat, the cancer can eat too. So it's true that I can kill 100% of their cancer cells by depriving them of nutrition. The problem is the cancer's host body will die before the cancer does.

The fallback argument is that surely sugar must feed cancer; everyone knows it's true! Absolutely right, I say, cancer cells often can use sugar as a fuel source. The problem with using that to shut them down is that the brain and the red blood cells can only burn sugar. Knowing this, the body ensures 100% of the time that sugar is available, regardless of what food is put into the mouth. So again, if in theory you could remove all sugar from the body, you would cure the cancer by killing the person in whom it is growing.

Some folks are going to throw their money away no matter what I say, but the explanations above work when there is any hope of success.

How do you tackle this particular challenge with your patients? Please join the discussion below in the comments.

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About Dr Kate Hitchcock
Kate Hitchcock, MD, PhD, is a radiation oncologist, biomedical engineer, and retired aircraft carrier driver who grew up as a Wyoming cowgirl. When she is not at the hospital, you can find her with Carolyn, Mary, Tyler, Nick, Marlee, and Colby the barking dog, enjoying the natural splendor of the great state of Florida. She thinks you should visit sometime and try to solve the puzzle of why the natives have so carefully shunted all of the tourists toward the House of Mouse. Connect with her on Twitter: @hitchcock_kate


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