Bookworm: The China Study

The China Study | The Silver Pen

The China Study

Shortly after I was diagnosed with FBC (f-bomb breast cancer for new readers), several people sent me a copy of The China Study by Dr. T. Colin Campbell. It’s an amazing, eye opening book. Really, really good.

My dear friend and health and wellness activist, Kathy Freston interviewed Dr. Campbell for her bestselling book Veganist (another great read, by the way!). Below is part of that conversation discussing some fascinating and enlightening information about the development of cancer and the role of food in it.


Dr. Campbell is a professor emeritus at Cornell University. His work is regarded by many as the definitive epidemiological examination of the relationship between diet and disease. He has received more than 70 grant years of peer-reviewed research (the gold standard of research) funding, much of it from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and he has authored more than 300 research papers.

KF: What happens in the body when cancer develops? What is the actual process?

TCC: Cancer generally develops over a long period of time, which can be divided into 3 stages: initiation, promotion, and progression.

Initiation occurs when chemicals or other agents attack the genes of normal cells to produce genetically modified cells capable of eventually causing cancer. The body generally repairs most such damage but if the cell reproduces itself before it is repaired, its new (daughter) cell retains this genetic damage. This process may occur within minutes and, to some extent, is thought to be occurring most of the time in most of our tissues.
Promotion occurs when the initiated cells continue to replicate themselves and grow into cell masses that eventually will be diagnosed. This is a long growth phase occurring over months or years and is known to be reversible.
Progression occurs when the growing cancer masses invade neighboring tissues and/or break away from the tissue of origin (metastasis) and travel to distant tissues when they are capable of growing independently at which point they are considered to be malignant.

KF: Why do some people get cancer and others don’t? What percentage is genetic, and what percentage has to do with diet?

TCC: Although the initiated cells are not considered to be reversible, the cells growing through the promotion stage usually are, which is a very exciting concept. This is the stage that especially responds to nutritional factors. For example, the nutrients from animal based foods, especially the protein, promote the development of the cancer whereas the nutrients from plant-based foods, especially the antioxidants, reverse the promotion stage. This is a very promising observation because cancer proceeds forward or backward as a function of the balance of promoting and anti-promoting factors found in the diet. Thus, consuming anti-cancer promoting, plant-based foods tend to keep the cancer from going forward, perhaps even reversing the promotion. The difference between individuals is almost entirely related to their diet and lifestyle practices.

Although all cancer and other diseases begin with genes, this is not the reason whether or not the disease actually appears. If people do the right thing during the promotion stage, perhaps even during the progression stage, cancer will not appear, and if it does, it might even be resolved. Most estimates suggest that not more than 2 to 3 percent of cancers are due entirely to genes; almost all the rest is due to diet and lifestyle factors. [Note from Kathy: Which is not to say that anyone is to blame for “creating their cancer,” but rather that we have a powerful tool available to us to prevent further damage and possibly to reverse the damage already in motion.]

Consuming plant-based foods offers the best hope of avoiding cancer, perhaps even reversing cancer once it is diagnosed. Believing that cancer is attributed to genes is a fatalistic idea but believing that cancer can be controlled by nutrition is a far more hopeful one.

Here’s the last part of my conversation with Dr. T. Colin Campbell, professor emeritus at Cornell University and bestselling author of The China Study  and Whole.  We’re talking about casein, which he says is, “the most relevant cancer promoter ever used in a laboratory”.

KF: Okay, so I am clear that it’s wise to avoid casein, which is intrinsic in dairy (milk and cheese), but how is other animal protein, such as chicken, steak, or pork, implicated in the cause and growth of cancer?

TCC: I would first say that casein is not just “intrinsic” but is the main protein of cow milk, representing about 87% of the milk protein.The biochemical systems which underlie the adverse effects of casein are also common to other animal-based proteins. Also, the amino acid composition of casein, which is the characteristic primarily responsible for its property, is similar to most other animal-based proteins. They all have what we call high ‘biological value,’ in comparison, for example, with plant-based proteins, which is why animal protein promotes cancer growth and plant protein doesn’t.

KF: What exactly is so bad about animal protein?

TCC: I don’t choose the word “exactly” because it suggests something very specific. Rather, it causes a broad spectrum of adverse effects.

Among other fundamental effects, it makes the body more acidic, alters the mix of hormones and modifies important enzyme activities, each of which can cause a broad array of more specific effects. One of these effects is its ability to promote cancer growth (by operating on key enzyme systems, by increasing hormone growth factors and by modifying the tissue acidity). Another is its ability to increase blood cholesterol (by modifying enzyme activities) and to enhance atherogenesis, which is the early stage of cardiovascular disease.

KF: Consider a person who has been eating poorly his whole life; is there still hope that a dietary change can make a big difference? Or is everything already in motion?

TCC: A variety of evidence shows that cancers and non-cancers alike can be stopped even after consuming a poor diet earlier in life. This effect is equivalent to treatment, a very exciting concept.

Very exciting, indeed!  Speaking of exciting, I highly recommend signing up for Kathy’s blog, The Daily LeanEach and every blog post is a Silver Lining of my day!

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  1. Judet says

    I was recently diagnosed with "FBC" – I love that term, by the way – and I quickly realized how much I need to feel in control of my life. One way to regain control has been by modifying my diet. Although I thought I had pretty healthy eating habits to begin with, I've made changes such as switching to organics and eating even more fruits and vegetables considered to be "anti-cancer." However, I get discouraged when I hear about women who are vegan or vegetarian and who work out regularly, and yet they are also afflicted by cancer. How do you reconcile Dr. Campbell's statements with the fact that cancer does not seem to discriminate based on lifestyle choices? I see people with healthy habits who get cancer, while others with unhealthy habits are spared.

    • silverpen says

      So sorry to hear about your diagnosis, Judet. Ugh. FBC.
      It is a challenge to compare those diagnosed who have healthy lifestyles with those who have unhealthy lifestyles. Indeed it is.
      From my perspective (as a vegan-eating marathon running FBC patient), one doctor told me, "Perhaps your diagnosis could have been so much worse had you not been so healthy." I really liked that response.
      In light of the fact that there is no clear, answer, my philosophy is to be as healthy as I can (emotionally, physically, intellectually and spiritually) to decrease my risk of a recurrence.
      Hope this helps.
      Sending all of my very best wishes to you, Judet!

      • Carolee Groux says

        Very interesting info about improving our diet and lifestyle. Since we can't change our genetic makeup at least we can make better food choices and regulate our lifestyle.
        I find helpful Dr. Campbell's 3 stages of cancer development: 1) Initiation, 2) Promotion, and
        3) Progression. He also defines and describes these stages, and offers suggestions to avoid each stage.

        • silverpen says

          I agree, Carolee. There definitely are things that we can (actively!) do to make a difference! Thanks, as always, for your comment. :)