The possibility of an association existing between animal protein and cancer goes back at least to the 1960s. At that time in the Philippines, a slowly increasing incidence of liver cancer was taking place amongst children that carried a high mortality rate. Because such cancers were very rare in this age group, news of the outbreak spread to the USA and prompted Virginia Tech. University to send a young nutritional scientist over there to see what was going on. His name was T. Colin Campbell.
Even before this visit took place researchers had already come to the conclusion that dietary factors were the most likely cause of the cancer, as the onset of the disease appeared to coincide with the discovery that large areas of the peanut crop had become infected by a fungus. It was, therefore, believed that the fungus was carcinogenic for the liver, and this theory was considerably reinforced when it was discovered that new cases of the disease plummeted as soon as children were instructed to avoid peanuts from fungus infected areas.
I – Campbell in the Philippines
That was how matters stood when Colin Campbell arrived on the scene. By then, not alone were researchers confident that the exact cause of the cancer was known, they were also satisfied that they could prevent new cases developing, simply by ensuring that peanuts from fungus-infected-areas were not eaten. In fact, all that seemed to remain for Campbell to do was to familiarize himself with the research that had taken place, and to read some of the case histories that had been documented.
It was while this evaluation was taking place, however, that a very puzzling statistic came to the researchers’ attention. It was discovered that it was only children from wealthy families that were dying of the disease; children from poor families, although they appeared to eat just as many peanuts as rich children, did not develop the cancer, much less die of it.
This was such a strange finding that doctors were forced to consider the possibility that factors other than peanuts might also be playing a role in the development of the cancer. It was decided, therefore, to identify all the major dietary differences that existed between the two groups of children. It was a task that proved surprisingly easy as it quickly became apparent that the main dietary difference between them was in the amount of animal protein being consumed.
Children from rich families ate lots of animal protein in the form of milk, cheese, eggs, poultry and all sorts of meats and these were precisely the foods that poorer families often could not afford.
It was a bit of a dilemma. If indeed it was only children of the rich that were developing liver cancer then one would have to conclude that there existed an association existed between the proteins that rich children were eating and the growth of the cancer. Few doctors could have felt entirely comfortable with this assumption, however, as it had long been acknowledged that animal protein was the most nutritious food that money could buy.
When shortly thereafter Campbell headed back to the USA these were the thoughts that were buzzing about in his head. Certainly there was convincing evidence that the liver cancer outbreak in the Philippines was primarily due to a fungal infection of the peanut crop, but what then was one to make of the fact that it was only the children of the rich, eating lots of animal protein, that were dying from the disease?
Bewildering questions sometimes turn out to have very simple answers and this was one such case. It was Colin Campbell that solved the riddle. What occurred to him was that if indeed animal protein was so wonderfully nutritious for the cells of humans and many other animals, then surely they would also be highly nutritious for these same cells should they become malignant. Indeed one might even suspect that cancer cells, with their inherent characteristic of out-of-control-replication, might actually require the nutritional power of animal proteins, if they were to thrive and grow.
II – Laboratory Tests
Once back in the United States, Campbell set to work and began by checking the medical literature, in case some research might have taken place on the subject of liver cancer that had previously escaped his eye.
To his surprise he found that there was one scientific paper published by two Indian researchers in ‘The Archives of Pathology’ from February 1968. These researchers, Madhavan and Gopalan, must have been on much the same track then as Campbell was now. They too were interested in the apparent association between animal protein and liver cancer, and they had carried out research that involved setting up experiments using laboratory rats.
All the rats were first exposed to some well known carcinogens with the intention of causing at least some of their liver cells to develop cancer. One group of the rats was then kept on a diet containing 20% animal protein in the form of casein from cows’ milk, and a second group was fed 5% casein. The results were remarkable in that the cancer cells in every rat fed on the 20% diet began to grow while little change occurred in the cells of rats on 5% casein.
On the strength of this scientific paper from India and his own experiences in The Philippines, Campbell wrote a large number of articles on the subject for top scientific journals in the USA. The articles received a lot of attention but much of this was critical as his suggestion of there being an association between animal protein and cancer was considered too farfetched to be accurate.
Campbell’s reaction was to set up his own experiments using, laboratory rats and the results were almost identical to those achieved by the Indian researchers. By this time he had become Professor of Nutrition and Biochemistry at Cornell University, where he remained for twenty-two years, and while there he carried out many more experiments on rats for the benefit of his students.
One of the more important findings he made during these experiments was that it was entirely possible to switch the growth of cancer on and off, simply by varying the amount of animal protein in the diet. When plant proteins were used in these experiments no such results were achieved.
III – Resistance of Vested Interests
By now Campbell had come to believe that he had a very significant discovery on his hands and attempted in every way possible to get his message across both to the general public and to the medical profession. He continued to write articles and lectured widely on the subject in many universities. He also wrote a number of books. His first and most famous book, The China Study (Dallas, 2005) sold well over two million copies, and was reviewed favourably in The New York Times. Even so, and notwithstanding the fact that he was now a full professor with tenure at one of the major universities in the United States, his work remained unread by the vast majority of medical doctors.
In The China Study Campbell makes no bones about the vested interest groups that confronted him whenever he brought up the subject of a relationship between animal protein and cancer. He listed three main groups.
The very powerful pharmaceutical industry with its enormous influence in practically all areas of medicine headed the list. Their immense wealth comes from the vast sums of money they earn from producing drugs to combat disease. Cancer drugs rank high in this research and so in monetary terms at least, the pharmaceutical industry would have most to lose should Campbell’s ideas prove correct.
Next on the list of vested interests came the farming community and the associated food industries. It was these that produced most of the animal protein that we consume, and needless to say they were none too pleased to find that their products were now being accused not alone of making cancers grow, but also of contributing to the greenhouse gasses responsible for Climate Change.
Ranked third on Campbell’s list of vested interests came the medical profession itself. The surprise here was that doctors were not ranked at number one as down through the years Campbell and his theory had been completely ignored by cancer specialists.
My own feelings are that the entire medical profession have made a very big mistake in not researching the subject. It would have been so easy for them to do so, and all relevant findings could then have been fully established. But such is life, and we all make mistakes. Overwork amongst wealthy, specialist doctors is widespread and while practice sometimes makes perfect, rushing headlong in the wrong direction helps nobody.
IV – Family Doctoring
My credentials are that I had been a family doctor in Ireland for many years and in 2005, after reading The China Study, I became convinced that some sort of relationship existed between animal protein and cancer.
I was sufficiently impressed to ask some cancer specialists that I knew what they thought about Campbell’s theory, but they all had more pressing problems on their minds. It was their lack of response that forced me to consider the possibility of carrying out some research myself. Cancer being such a common disease a busy family doctor could expect to have about seventy cancer patients, at various stages of the disease, attending the practice at any one time. So I had plenty of material to work on.
What I did was simply to bring up the subject of a possible association between animal protein and cancer with every cancer patient that passed through my office. I explained to each of them how I had been influenced by Colin Campbell’s book and suggested that they too should not alone read it, but should seriously consider going on an animal protein-free, plant-based diet, straight away.
It was a big ask, but people generally listen to what a family doctors has to say, and most of my patients decided to give the diet a try. As time went by and everybody became increasingly aware of just how difficult it was to give up eating their favourite foods, attitudes began to change and this was not helped by a lack of support for the diet from cancer specialists. For a time it began to appear that my whole research effort might go down the drain.
V – A ‘Eureka’ Moment
What was becoming evident was that the diet was just too difficult for many people and there did not appear to be much that I could do about it. Making the diet more palatable was the only solution that came to mind but this didn’t appear very realistic. Or was it?
I had a sort of eureka moment when I began to realise that for those that were struggling with the diet, no great harm could be done by allowing fish to be eaten a few times per week. It was not something that I had read about in Professor Campbell’s writings, or anywhere else for that matter, but I had always wondered whether fish might be in a different category to other forms of animal protein.
I explained to patients that little or no direct research had been done on the subject of fish eating and cancer, but pointed out that people living In Japan and other parts of the world with strong fish eating cultures were amongst the most long-lived on the planet, with very low cancer rates. There was also the fact that recent evolutionary research was suggesting that mankind appeared to have evolved walking in or around river estuaries eating plants and shellfish. Perhaps this could offer some explanation as to why fish protein might be an exception to the rule.
It was a bit of a gamble but it appears to have paid off. Certainly the diet with fish included became much easier to follow, and soon it was not only the strugglers that were eating fish a couple of times a week, most of my cancer patients were doing so also while otherwise strictly adhering to a wholefood plant-based regime.
Patients welcomed this small change in the diet, and few if any now lapse. We are all learning as we go along.
Many patients recount how they experience an improved sense of wellbeing after being on the diet for only a matter of weeks. This may just be in the head, but I suggest that improved wellbeing reflects how the cancer cells inside them have stopped replicating.
Improved wellbeing also appears to be associated with a good long term prognosis, and I now suggest to patients that most of them should be able to return to their normal pre-cancer lives, within a matter of weeks and broadly speaking this is what I have seen.
My hope for the future is that all patients diagnosed with any form of cancer will automatically stop eating animal protein as soon as the diagnosis is made. This is a risk-free form of treatment, and far from interfering with treatments given by cancer specialists, makes recovery more rapid and assured.
I also emphasise to patients that by staying on an animal-protein-free, plant-based diet indefinitely that not alone are cancers very unlikely to return but that they also have a much better chance of avoiding most of the chronic diseases we are prone to, including coronary heart disease.
Over the years I have put together a short book explaining why I have gone down the path that I have taken. The book recounts a number of case histories that readers should find helpful. The title is Stop Feeding Your Cancer and it is available for purchase on Amazon.
Dr John Kelly MB.BCh.BAO.DCh.LM.MRCGP