Fasting through chemotherapy is a new concept that I first heard of when I met Yasmin and she said she was thinking of trying it and asked for my views. That conversation culminated in me working with and supporting her through the process.
Many people believe fasting means no food or drink is consumed on those days. That is not the case in ‘fasting through chemo’ Rather like the 5:2 fasting principle calories are restricted to 4-500 per day and is called ‘the fasting mimicking diet’.
The research behind this new concept believes that a short-term fast starves cancer cells and facilitates the chemo drug therapies to better target the cancer, whilst protecting healthy cells.
A non medical way to understate it is that without lots of food (fuel) your healthy cells go into repair and protect mode, in effect hibernate. But cancer cells are highly energetic and constantly want to divide and multiply so they are still very active and therefore more susceptible to the chemo treatment
This method of coping through chemo may not be for everybody but it is a possible option. If you’d like more information please get in touch or talk to your oncology team
This is Yasmin’s account of her fasting experience
- how you heard about fasting through chemo
I first came across fasting with cancer and chemotherapy two years ago via Michael Mosley’s co-authored book on the 5:2 diet, Eat, Fast and Live Longer. Also the Horizon programme 2012-13, which I think you can see on youtube.
When I was diagnosed with breast cancer in December 2015 and subsequently found that my treatment plan required chemotherapy, I remembered reading about fasting and chemo and revisited the fasting subject doing as much internet research as I could find. There were some useful discussion forums, published research articles and evidence of the effectiveness in research trials on mice (our closest comparator in the animal kingdom) and some human trials. I was surprised that it was pretty unheard of here.
- What made you consider trying it?
a short chop before the chemo
I had some experience of fasting having taken up the 5:2 diet two years ago to help with regular but mild stomach upsets and found it to be beneficial. I realised I felt healthier with one or two fasting days in the week. When I discussed the idea with my oncologist and medical team they were supportive if it was something I wanted to try but they didn’t have any advice to offer. I hadn’t discovered anyone else trying the approach in the UK but, having done as much research as I could, I found the evidence from the US and the explanation for how it worked compelling. As well as helping to reduce the side effects of chemo, the idea that fasting helps protect good cells from chemo whilst cancer cells remain exposed also made me think it was worth doing. However, as none of my medical team seemed to have heard of it and their advise was to eat to combat the side effects of chemo I was nervous. I didn’t want to do anything that made me weaker or more vulnerable at a time when the treatment was going to attack my immune system. In addition, it became clear that I would need to fast for 4-5 consecutive days around chemotherapy. I had only ever fasted for 1 or 2 days before so it was a challenge. I became aware that there were nutrition workshops available through Maggie’s Centre, Nottingham and I was keen to learn as much as I could about how I could boost my diet in non-fasting days.
- What support did you receive?
I was able to attend one of the nutrition workshops Susan gives at Maggie’s just before my first fast. It was really helpful, first of all giving me some great tips on nutrition and recipe ideas and improving my understanding of the right balance of foods. I had thought I was pretty knowledgeable but the session made me realise how much more there was to know. Secondly Susan was familiar with 5:2 and its benefits and although she hadn’t heard of it being used with chemotherapy before she was really interested to find out more and to support me through the experience. By the next workshop Susan had also done research and had been in touch with the team in America that have been studying the effects of fasting for the past 16 years and who were in the process of applying for a licence for their chemo food kits. Although this would be too late for me, they were able to confirm the kinds of foods that were acceptable during fasting, as a small amount of food intake (400-500 calories) is okay.
- What was your experience like?
My 50th during treatment
I restricted my diet during fasting days to 400 calories and reduced/cut out protein and carbs and dairy. I had some fruit and tended to make things like wholewheat couscous with stirfry veg and soy sauce – adding chillies for some flavour!. Or salads. When not fasting but not feeling like eating, I nutribullet/blended a good mix of greens/fruit and fibre which set me up for the day. Being vegetarian helped but I did have some fish occasionally. So the main thing was listening to what my body wanted, increasing plant based food, reducing processed foods and fasting round chemo.
I can’t say that I have been completely free of side-effects but I do seem to have fared much better than a lot of people. It is impossible to say whether this would have been my experience anyway. I came across the following article recently by a journalist and her experience seems more definitive than mine. http://www.theguardian.com/society/2016/jun/03/how-to-get-through-chemotherapy-decca-aitkenhead-cancer-treatment
After each session of chemo I did feel under the weather and for a few days and I felt what I described as ‘jet-lagged’. There were also ‘awake’ spells in the night due to steroids and chemo has brought on my menopause so I have been having hot flushes. My ability to ‘taste’ went for a week or so and there were times when I felt tired or needed a sleep in the day. How I felt with chemo was hard to describe. Not exactly ill but not exactly well either. But I didn’t need to take the extra anti-sickness tablets I was prescribed each time, or use the mouthwash for mouth and throat sores. The tests prior to each chemo were generally good so I also know that it didn’t have a detrimental effect on me from a medical perspective. My weight went down a few pounds each time I fasted but then came back up again before the next round. I lost a few pounds overall. I generally had a few days of not feeling well but was still able to function. The rest of the time I felt ok and by week three back to normal.
The days of fasting were manageable. I tended to keep busy and take on a lot of fluid. I did sometimes get headaches which I initially put down to reducing caffeine. Once or twice the headache persisted despite headache tablets but then I found the next day I felt even better. The main thing was boredom – eating is such a pleasure! Fasting felt cleansing and although there were times when my energy dipped overall I felt stronger for it and there was for me a sense of achievement and control. Hunger pains don’t last and they don’t grow. When I did eat, I really took my time and ate simple and nutritious food and kept broadly within the guidelines I had come across through my research.
Things I’ve learnt
Listening to your body is really important. Also things that in your head are ‘treat’ foods don’t turn out to be during chemo – so the treat became a nutribullet smoothie rather than a jam donut – it takes a while for you to notice the felt experience is different to what your head remembers!