A leading scientist, who has been fighting breast cancer since 1987, says the disease is overwhelmingly linked to animal products.
In 1993, the breast cancer that had plagued Jane Plant since 1987 returned for the fifth time. It came in the shape of a secondary tumour – a lump in her neck the size of half a boiled egg. Doctors told her that she had only months to live.
Then a mother of two young children, Prof Plant recalls the shocked discussion she had with her husband, Peter. As scientists – she is a geochemist, he a geologist – they had both worked in China on environmental issues, and knew that Chinese women had historically very low rates of breast cancer: one epidemiological study from the Seventies showed the disease affected one in 100,000 Chinese women, compared with one in 12 in the West.
“I had checked this information with senior academics,” Prof Plant says. “Chinese doctors I knew told me they had hardly seen a case of breast cancer in years. Yet if Chinese women are on Western diets – if they go to live in the US or Australia, for example – within one generation they got the same rate. I said to Peter, ‘Why is it that Chinese women living in China don’t get breast cancer?’”
Her husband recalled that on field expeditions his Chinese colleagues provided him with powdered milk because they did not drink it themselves. “He pointed out at that time they did not have a dairy industry. It was a revelation.”
Feeling she had nothing to lose, Prof Plant switched to a dairy-free, Asian-style diet virtually overnight, while also undergoing chemotherapy. Having already cut down on animal protein such as meat, fish and eggs, she now cut out all milk products, including the live organic yogurt she had religiously eaten for several years.
Within six weeks the lump in her neck had disappeared; within a year, she was in remission and remained cancer-free for the next 18 years. Convinced that her diet had helped, she devised the Plant programme – a dairy-free diet, relying largely on plant proteins such as soy – similar, she says, to the traditional diet in rural China.
It was originally intended to help other women with breast cancer and, later, men with prostate cancer. Her book about her experience, Your Life in Your Hands, caused a sensation when it was published in 2000, with many cancer patients claiming it helped them to recover.
But in 2011, Prof Plant’s breast cancer returned for the sixth time, with the discovery of a large lump beneath the collarbone and some small tumours in her lungs. Under stress writing an academic book, she had become lax about both her diet and lifestyle – regularly eating, among other forbidden items, calves’ liver cooked in butter at a restaurant, and falafel made from milk powder.
“I went straight back to my oncologist, who prescribed letrozole [an oestrogen suppressor]. But I also went back on my strict diet, as well as walking regularly and doing meditation.” After a few months, her cancer was again in remission.
All of which may sound too good to be true, but Plant, 69, is no crackpot. Professor of geochemistry at Imperial College London, where she specialises in environmental carcinogens, she is highly regarded in her field, having been awarded a CBE in 1997 for her services to earth science; and her approach to cancer is supported by some eminent scientists. Her latest book, co-written with Mustafa Djamgoz, professor of cancer biology at Imperial, has a foreword from Prof Sir Graeme Catto, president of the College of Medicine, who describes its findings as “illuminating… even, at times, shocking” but all backed up by scientific research.
Prof Plant, however, is not dismissive of conventional cancer treatment, having had, at various times, a mastectomy, chemotherapy, radiotherapy and irradiation of her ovaries to induce menopause.
She believes new and “wonderful” anti-cancer treatments are vital – but so, she argues, is a dairy-free diet, as well as other diet and lifestyle measures, such as stress reduction.
Much of the advice in the new book, Beat Cancer, chimes with current guidance on how to reduce cancer risk, such as eating more plant food and less red meat, salt, sugar and fat; taking regular exercise and reducing stress.
She also advises going organic, using complementary therapies where there is good evidence they help recovery, and avoiding potential pollutants such as pesticides.
But her far more radical message is that a diet that totally excludes dairy products – milk, cheese, butter and yoghurt – can be successfully used to help stop the disease “in its tracks”, by depriving cancer cells of the conditions they need to grow.
“We have all been brought up with the idea that milk is good for you,” says Prof Plant. “But there is evidence now that the growth factors and hormones it contains are not just risky for breast cancer, but also other hormone-related cancers, of the prostate, testicles and ovary.”
Going dairy-free, she says, may also help patients with colorectal cancer, lymphoma and throat (but not lung) cancer. “Cows’ milk is good for calves – but not for us,” she adds.
With the relatively new science of epigenetics, scientists now understand that cancer-causing genes may not become active unless particular conditions arise that switch them on – and if those conditions change, they may be switched off. “This means that what you eat can have an impact at the genetic level,” says Prof Plant.