Starving Cancer: How dieting during cancer treatment could yield better outcomes, survival rates

nicole-l-simoneNicole L. Simone, MD, Director of the Breast Radiation Oncology Center and Co-Leader of the Jefferson Breast Center at the Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center at Jefferson offers insights on how discoveries from the lab taken directly to patients in the clinic are working to help support the advancement of Komen’s Bold Goal of drastically reducing breast cancer mortality.

Being diagnosed with cancer can be a difficult and complex experience. Many of the standard treatments for cancer, like radiation and chemotherapy can be just as harsh. During these treatments patients may experience nausea, hair loss, and fatigue, among other side effects.

We know that it’s important for patients to eat a healthy diet during cancer treatments to help lessen these effects. What we didn’t know, until now, is exactly how much of an impact diet can have on the effectiveness of these treatments.

As the director of Breast Radiation Oncology at the Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center at Jefferson, my vision is to teach patients how to use diet and nutrition to alter and possibly improve their outcomes with cancer.

For the past five years, my team of researchers and I have been investigating the impact of diet and exercise on cancer treatment and care. Recently, we’ve discovered that cutting calories during standard cancer therapy such as radiation or chemotherapy can have amazing effects on cancer. Not only can decreasing calories help decrease the size of cancerous tumors, but it can also prevent metastasis (the spread of cancer from one place to other parts of the body), and help improve outcomes and survival rates for cancer.

We have been fortunate enough to take those laboratory findings directly to the clinic. Our first-in-human clinical trial placed early stage breast cancer patients on a diet during radiation treatment. So far, patients have lost an average of nine pounds during the 10 weeks of diet—despite the fact that patients typically gain weight during radiation therapy. But most importantly, the patients participating in the trial experienced less toxicity from their radiation and reported feeling better overall with improvement in biomarkers.

The laboratory results are strong and I feel fortunate to be able to allow patients to realize the potential benefits of this new therapy: using diet almost as a drug to improve existing therapies. We have been so encouraged by this first trial that we have opened another trial and are already preparing to launch another.

The next key question we need to answer is how do we identify the dietary needs of different groups—like seniors, youths, active vs. non active, patients on anti-estrogen therapy, and patients with early-stage, advanced and metastatic disease—and use specific dietary regimens to fight breast cancer.

I like to consider myself as somewhat of a cancer coach because I try to empower breast cancer patients to fight back against cancer by taking control of what they eat.

Using diet as a therapy seems like such a simple remedy—but it’s rooted in solid science. As a physician, I’m proud to be conducting research that contributes to Komen’s goal of reducing breast cancer deaths in the U.S. If successful, our research will make chemotherapy and radiation therapy more effective for early stage breast cancer patients and can decrease metastatic disease; thereby saving more lives.

We’re hopeful that these initial studies will empower, not only patients, but also physicians to begin giving prescriptions for nutrition and using the power of a healthy diet to help their patients heal.

Dr. Simone treats breast cancer patients with radiation while leading a research team, which enables her to take discoveries from the lab directly to patients in the clinic. Dr. Simone uses advances in radiation oncology to minimize side effects while optimizing cancer treatment. She has studied the long-term toxicity of radiation in breast cancer and is exploring new ways to target the cancer while protecting the heart and lungs. Dr. Simone has learned that decreasing caloric intake can make chemotherapy and radiation therapy more effective for early stage breast cancer patients and can decrease metastatic disease.

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