Can a Paleo Diet Prolong Survival from Pancreatic Cancer?

If there is anything we all know about pancreatic cancer, it is that it is deadly. Fewer than 5% of people diagnosed with pancreatic cancer live for five years after diagnosis, and almost all of these have “resectable” pancreatic cancers, that is, cancers that can be surgically removed, that were detected in the course of a procedure for a condition other than pancreatic cancer, almost by accident.

There aren't many good dietary interventions for pancreatic cancer, either, although author Robert Rister recounts meeting a series of pancreatic cancer patients who lived for 11 to 24 years after initial diagnosis, one of them treated by diet alone. Rister met these exception pancreatic adenocarcinoma patients when he was assisting a famous cardiologist named Demetrio Sodi-Pallares (1910-2003), who stumbled over a treatment for pancreatic cancer literally by accident.

The son of a prominent political family in Mexico City, Dr. Sodi, as he preferred to be called, graduated from medical school in 1933. He quickly became an internationally renowned expert in what was then a very new technology, electrocardiography, better known as EKG. Sodi's expertise in EKG landed him  a teaching position at the University of California at Los Angeles, where he treated patients from all over the world.

In 1946, Sodi was handed a very difficult case. His own mother had had a heart attack, and she was clearly dying. No one knew better than Sodi how to diagnose the heart damage, but at that time, no doctor really had a clue of how to treat it. Just about the only tool in the cardiologist's medicine chest was hydrochlorothiazide, also known as a “pee pill.” That medicine wasn't doing Mrs. Sodi any good.

Sodi racked his brain to figure out a way to save his mother, and eventually it dawned on him that the problem with the medication available in his era was that it depleted the body of both sodium, which added to fluid and burdened the heart, and potassium, which the heart muscle needs to charge itself so it can beat. Sodi's solution for his mother was to take her off the only medication available at the time, and to have her follow an entirely natural, no-salt diet.

By no-salt, Sodi meant to exclude any food that contained more than 100 mg of sodium in a 100 g (3-1/2 serving). Not only did that eliminate salt from the salt shaker, pickles, cured meats, smoked fish, and the few instant foods available at the time, it even eliminated some root vegetables such as beets, carrots, and turnips. There not being any other hope for Mrs. Sodi, she tried the diet, and recovered, regaining her health and living almost another 30 years.

Sodi developed a method of treating heart attacks that emphasized eliminating sodium and replenishing potassium. “Él odio al sodio,” he hates sodium, Mexican doctors said of him. Sodi became even more famous, gaining a professorship at the University of Michigan and later at the Baylor Medical School in Houston, Texas. At Baylor, Sodi shared the spotlight with the surgeon who invented bypass surgery, Michael DeBakey. By the 1960's, patients came to Houston from all over the world to be treated with either Sodi's non-surgical method or DeBakey's bypass surgery.

Sodi's treatment cost $50. DeBakey's treatment cost $25,000. When they both reached the age of 65, DeBakey was offered a new clinic. Sodi was asked to return home to Mexico City. So Sodi boarded over his swimming pool and, to his wife's considerable consternation, opened a free clinic in his yard, only taking hopeless cases and only treating patients for free.

For several years, Dr. Sodi had good results treating heart patients. Eventually he had a patient who had had  both a heart attack and lung cancer. He didn't know what to do about the cancer, but he did know what to do about the heart, so Sodi offered the man a series of infusions to build up potassium and ordered him to follow the diet. Sodi only hoped for the best. But in two weeks the man came back claiming he felt completely well, and that he had gotten out and played tennis. Sodi ordered x-rays and found the cancer was in remission.

In another few months, a woman who had pancreatic cancer came to Sodi's clinic. Rister notes that he himself met her 11 years later, and saw her films and lab reports. This woman had been diagnosed with stage III pancreatic cancer and sent home to die. Sodi gave her no treatment at all other than his rigidly low-sodium, essentially paleo diet. She went into remission, too. Sodi sent her back to her oncologist who refused to believe she was the same patient.

Sodi had considerable success in helping patients with pancreatic cancer, some living up to 24 years. Typically they had a long period of remission and a very quick end. And Sodi eventually was able to understand how his diet was working in terms of the physics and chemistry that had been cutting edge when he was in medical school.

Every cell maintains a negative electrical charge on its outer membrane. This charge helps the cell “grab” amino acids, hormones, and chemical messengers.

Positive charges inside the cell, of course, reduce the electrical charge on the outside of the cell. Sodium ions, that is, the metallic part of salt, are particularly problematic because the ion is relatively large. The sodium ions repel each other and trap water in the cell. They tug at the strands of DNA so it cannot properly code proteins. They also keep the cells from absorbing the amino acids and nucleic acids it needs to repair itself.

The more salt we eat, the more sodium builds up in our cells, even though the kidneys keep the extracellular content of sodium constant in the bloodstream. We also build up sodium in our cells when we eat sugar. Every time a cell receives a molecule of glucose with the help of insulin, it has to absorb three bulky positively charged sodium ions and give up two compact, equally charged potassium ions. The positive charge inside the cell goes up and up and the negative charge on the membrane of the cell weakens.

Pancreatic cells are especially susceptible to being “discharged” by the accumulation of sodium. Among all the cells of the body, they have the lowest negative charge on their outer membranes, just -4 millivolts. It takes only a little sodium to disrupt the electrodynamics of the cell, but it also only takes a little potassium to restore it. Sodi found that people who had pancreatic cancer were extremely responsive to diet, and that diet alone could extend life for months and years.

After Sodi died, Rister followed some people who used the diet along with every other method at their disposal to fight pancreatic cancer. One woman Rister knew lived in relatively good health for six years—until a doctor determined to prove that she still had pancreatic cancer ordered a needle biopsy, and she died of a resulting infection.

With both heart patients and cancer patients, Sodi ordered an all-natural diet. There are no breads, no pastries, no cookies, and no dairy products (except, ironically, unsalted butter) that are permitted in his plan. There are no restrictions on fat, however, and there are no minimums or maximums on protein foods, as long as they are fresh, uncured, and cooked without even a hint of salt. To make sure that hyponatremia (low sodium levels in the bloodstream) did not become a problem, Sodi told his patients to eat one “normal” meal a week, with up to three servings of normally salted food, and up to two slices of bread. No other departures from the plan were permitted.

If you have pancreatic cancer, you may have been told “Go ahead and eat anything you like.” We suggest, “Go ahead and eat anything you like, and can tolerate, on the paleo plan.” And continue to fight pancreatic cancer every way you possibly can. How you feel is the best indicator of how well the diet works for you—but if you have pancreatic cancer, feeling better just as long as you can is what it's all about.

About Andy Williams

Andy Williams has a Ph.D. in biology and a strong interest in health and nutrition. The Paleo Gut web site was created to explore the health benefits of the Paleo diet and see how it is changing lives. Also, get our free daily Paleo Gut newspaper delivered to your inbox. Please feel free to contact me and let me know about your Paleo experiences or favorite recipes.

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