It is a foregone conclusion in mainstream medicine that alternative dietary therapies for cancer do not work, and may even pose dangers to patients. You would certainly get this idea by reading about the Gerson diet on Cancer Treatment Watch. It’s a website devoted to “debunking” alternative treatments in order to elevate FDA-approved therapies.
But in 1995 a study of 153 melanoma patients showed dramatic and statistically significant survival benefit using a particular type of cancer diet. Survival rates for these patients were compared to survival rates for very large groups of melanoma patients (thousands to tens of thousands) in the literature at the time (1).
I have never seen this powerful study discussed among the “quackbusters.”
I have also never seen the study discussed by advocates of so-called alternative cancer therapy! It boggles my mind. If you have such a powerful weapon against cancer, why not publicize it?
Here are the dramatic results for 5-year cancer survivors, by cancer stage:
As the cancer worsens, the odds of being a cancer survivor increase dramatically for dietary therapy patients.
For Stages I and II patients, there is a 27% increase in the numbers of 5-year cancer survivors.
For Stage III patients, a 71% increase in cancer survivors.
And for Stage IVA patients? A 650% increase!
Patients with the most to lose also have the most to gain!
The Gerson diet was developed by Dr. Max Gerson in the 1920s to deal with a variety of chronic health problems, including infections. He believed it worked through detoxification, which reduces swelling, and in turn, boosts immune health. (2)
The Gerson diet is restricted in salt and fat, and also restricted in protein for the first 6 weeks. It consists mostly of large amounts of fruit and vegetable juices, but also includes cooked potatoes and other vegetables. Many patients also report that this alternative cancer therapy helps them tolerate conventional treatment better.
We don’t know for sure, but melanoma is a cancer that is particularly susceptible to a number of cancer immunotherapies that have been developed in recent decades, including Keytruda and Opdivo.
There are several clues that indicate that the Gerson diet probably works by strengthening the immune response against the cancer.
First, Dr. Gerson himself thought the diet enhanced immune health, based on his development of the diet for use in tuberculosis patients.
Second, the Gerson regimen restricts calories, and we know that this also improves immune health.
Third, Gar Hildenbrand (Gerson diet expert and co-author on the melanoma study above), believes that microbes or parts of microbial cells may be translocated across the gut wall through the slightly irritating effects of the large amounts of juice in the diet. This is then hypothesized to stimulate an immune response (pers. comm.).
Fourth, the authors speculate that raw liver juice used in the therapy could have caused episodes of Campylobacter food poisoning, which may have also helped to stimulate an immune response against the cancer. That might sound crazy, but there is a longstanding association in the scientific literature between “spontaneous” cancer regressions and microbial infections.
There are other plausible mechanisms, including that ample B vitamins in liver improved patients’ immune health.
It is the immune hypothesis that is most plausible. Restricting calories, in combination with a diet that is high in micronutrients and vitamins, most likely has potent effects on immune health.
In 2007, a half dozen intriguing cases of long-term cancer survivors were presented by Molassiotis and Peat that also supported the idea that the Gerson regimen works. These were all patients with advanced, metastatic, terminal cancers — melanoma, adenocarcinoma of the breast, Hodgkin’s, astrocytoma, and cholangiocarcinoma — who survived from between 6 to 27 years. (3)
Molassiotis and Peat also report that another small 6-year study, conducted in a European clinic and published in 1990, which demonstrated strong positive influence for the Gerson dietary therapy. (I have not read the original publication in German but it is cited in their paper.)
Yes, of course. But data from Gerson’s own patients, isolated case studies of cancer survivors, and the larger retrospective study of 153 melanoma patients are tantalizing.
More trials are always needed in order to determine which aspects of an alternative therapy are most helpful, and against which types of cancers. One could conceive of dozens of trials that could be conducted against one cancer type alone, altering different aspects of the alternative therapy. And even then, the work would not be done. It never is.
Unfortunately, dietary interventions are extremely difficult to study in any controlled way. For one thing, patients are generally unwilling to be randomized to the non-dietary control group of the trial. These limitations of dietary studies are usually used against them by doctors and cancer centers.
The Gerson diet is far from proven, particularly as it has only been studied extensively in one cancer type. However, the authors of the melanoma study also have unpublished data from a large cohort of breast cancer patients also demonstrating significant survival benefit (Gar Hildenbrand, pers. comm.)
The important takeaway is that the Gerson alternative dietary therapy is not disproven, and despite some risks from bacterial infection if raw liver is ingested, or of high potassium levels from carrot juice in a small minority of patients over many decades, these risks are certainly not more dangerous to patients than the terminal cancer they are battling.
Given its positive quality of life benefits, it’s not surprising that cancer patients often follow the Gerson dietary regimen as an unconventional and alternative route, after being exhaustively pre-treated by conventional methods that have failed.
The 153 melanoma patients in the retrospective study followed this protocol:
As a patient, I would alter this protocol if I was not working closely with practitioners experienced with this diet, to the modified self help regimen below.
Self help Gerson regimen
I don’t recommend embarking on supplementation with thyroid hormone, niacin, or injectable vitamin B12 without medical supervision.
Always seek the advice of your nutritionist, physician, or cancer center before undertaking any diet or exercise program, and get monitored with regular blood tests by your doctor or cancer center.
There are a few intriguing case studies of advanced cancer remissions associated with the macrobiotic diet as well (4). Although it is one of the most popular alternative cancer diets, the level of scientific support for the macrobiotic diet is not quite at the level of support of the Gerson diet, though it does merit some attention.
Outside of copious juicing, the foods ingested on a macrobiotic diet are actually fairly similar to the Gerson regimen (vegetables, oatmeal, and so on). I strongly agree with the macrobiotic lifestyle emphasis on physical activity, avoidance of exposures to pesticides and other toxic chemicals, stress reduction, and restoring a sense of positive thinking and self help to the patient.
I’m ready to get started with the Gerson diet!
What should I do?
Second, gather the materials you'll need on each of those pages.
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(1) Hildenbrand GLG, Hildenbrand CL. Bradford K, Cavin SW. 1995. Five-Year Survival Rates of Melanoma Patients Treated by Diet Therapy after the manner of Gerson: a retrospective review. Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine 1: 29-37.
(2) Gerson M. 1978. The cure of advanced cancer by diet therapy: a summary of 30 years of clinical experimentation. Physiol Chem Phys 10(5):449-464.
(3) Molassiotis A, and Peat, P. 2007. Surviving Against All Odds: Analysis of 6 Case Studies of Patients With Cancer Who Followed the Gerson Therapy. Integrative Cancer Therapies 6(1): 80-88.
(4) Kushi LH, Cunningham JE, Hebert JR, Lerman RH, Bandera EV, Teas J. 2001. The Macrobiotic Diet in Cancer. Journal of Nutrition 131: 3056S-3064S.
The ideas in this website are not intended as a substitute for the advice of a trained health professional. All matters regarding your health require medical supervision. Consult your physician and/or health care professional before adopting any nutritional, exercise, or medical protocol. Consult your physician about any condition that may require diagnosis or medical attention. Statements regarding certain products and services represent the views of the author alone, and do not constitute a recommendation or endorsement or any product or service.