Can milk give you cancer?

One size does not fit all in prevention, we review two new books on health.

So what's the truth about dairy?

Beat cancer: How to regain control of your health and your life
Mustafa Djamgoz and Jane A. Plant
Random House (2013)
RRP $34.95

Cow’s milk is good for calves but not people. So says Jane Plant who contracted breast cancer in 1987. For six years she experienced the agonising remission and relapse cycle before cutting dairy from her diet. Jane then drew a link between the low-incidence of breast cancer in China and the low consumption of dairy in that country. She continued her chemotherapy and after six weeks without dairy her cancer went away. It stayed away for 18 years. It reappeared in a stressful time when her old dietary habits re-emerged. Again she cut dairy and also took an oestrogen suppressor. The cancer again disappeared. Her story is surprising. But is it a scientific discovery?

Plant, a professor in geochemistry, recruited cancer researcher Mustafa Djamgoz as co-author to present her case. The book outlines their opinion of how cancer develops, how to live with it and how to stop it. They declare it provides “the latest peer-reviewed scientific and medical literature”. The book successfully explains complex biological principles to the general reader. But it repeatedly presents only half the story on various hot topics of cancer research. One example is the discussion of growth factors in milk. A proposed culprit is insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1).

A growing body of evidence shows this hormone has a role in cancer development. Cows treated with growth hormones such as bovine somatotrophin (BST) produce a higher level of IGF-1 in their milk. But these growth hormones are prohibited in Australia. Therefore our milk has much lower levels of IGF-1 than countries still treating their cows with growth hormones.

Regardless, a healthy adult takes almost no IGF-1 from their diet as it cannot easily be absorbed – rather it is made inside the body to facilitate growth. Dairy is not the culprit.

It is true that cancer cells grow better in an acidic environment. However there is no evidence that this kind of environment is caused by diet.

Plant also discusses growth factor VEGF which is found at elevated levels in dairy cows with mastitis, as well as in breast cancer patients. This protein is produced by the body to heal wounds and create blood cells. It can also be produced by cancers to help their growth. Its elevated presence in breast cancer patients and mastitis cows is not from a dietary source. As the authors write, “As yet, there are no studies of relationship between diet and circulating levels of VEGF.” This protein’s production is a consequence, not a cause of, disease.

The book argues that meat and dairy foods produce a more acidic environment inside the body, which is ideal for cancer growth. Here, Plant is advocating what is known as the alkaline diet. This is widely considered a fad and its claims of increasing health by increasing the body’s pH have been criticised for lack of evidence.

The body has an incredible ability to maintain its pH and contains a range of environments from acidic to alkaline. Digestion would be very different if stomach acid became stomach alkaline. It is true that cancer cells grow better in an acidic environment. However there is no evidence that this kind of environment is caused by diet, although there is evidence that cancer cells produce an acidic environment rather than simply moving into one.

That Plant has found a way to manage and beat her cancer is to be celebrated. Her book offers positive practical steps to fight cancer including tips on exercise, stress and the range of possible treatments. It would be wise, however, to be wary of her claims that dairy should join a poisonous foods list. Balanced and varied diets lead to improved health. Not a great headline, but true nonetheless.

The perfect guide when you need her most

So it’s cancer, now what?
By Ranjana Srivastava
Penguin-Viking (2014)
RRP $29.99

THIS IS a book you will never want to buy. But should you ever need it, you will find great comfort in the fact it is there – and for how it combines useful information to guide you through the minefield that is cancer treatment with great compassion and sensitivity.

Ranjana Srivastava is a similarly complex mix. An oncologist, Fulbright scholar and award-winning author whose calm prose inspires trust.

Her book is comprehensive, covering all stages of the process of fighting cancer from diagnosis, through how to tell the kids, treatment choices, the hopes – false and otherwise – of new drug trials, managing pain, dealing with doctors who can often seem distant and unfeeling, and surviving.

There is also help here for carers, the sometimes-forgotten collateral victims of this disease who need their own coping strategies. - Bill Condie

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