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Health & Balance

A Diet for Cancer?

The Dean Ornish solution.
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WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Craig H. Kliger, MD

Sept. 25, 2000 -- Imagine knowing that cancer is growing in your body, and you're doing nothing to stop it. A significant number of men with prostate cancer opt for just that -- no surgery, no radiation, just checkups every three months to monitor the tumor.

Because prostate cancer often grows very slowly, and because the standard treatments carry the risk of impotence, incontinence, or both, many physicians endorse this "watchful waiting" approach -- especially for older men. Yet for some patients, it can be extraordinarily difficult to take no action against a cancer they know is inside them.

Dean Ornish, MD, thinks there is something these men can do. Ornish, who startled the medical world several years ago when rigorous trials showed that his combined diet, exercise, and stress-reduction program could reverse heart disease, is now turning his attention to prostate cancer. He and his colleagues are testing the notion that low-tech "lifestyle therapy" can slow, stop, or even reverse the disease in men who are diagnosed early. Could it be that what worked for heart disease can work for cancer, too?

The treatment protocol is based on the heart disease program that Ornish developed at the Preventive Medicine Research Institute in Sausalito, Calif. It calls for 65 men to eat a strict diet -- no meat, oil, or dairy products allowed -- and to engage in various stress-reducing activities including daily meditation, yoga, and exercise. Another 65 men, the control group, will make no lifestyle changes. Both sets of patients will receive prostate-specific antigen (PSA) tests -- an indicator of the cancer's status -- and checkups every three months for a year.

What's the Evidence?

The evidence in support of this approach, according to Ornish, comes mostly from epidemiological research showing remarkable differences in the incidence of prostate cancer in different countries. These studies have found that men all over the world are equally likely to have tiny cancerous lesions -- in essence, the germ of a cancerous growth -- in their prostates. But for men living in countries where the national diet tends to be light on meat and heavy on plant-based foods, these lesions appear less likely to develop into detectable -- and potentially harmful -- masses.

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