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
“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
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
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.
For those with cancer or at high risk of the disease, Prof Plant
advocates cutting out all dairy
Cancer cells, scientists now believe, are hypersensitive to chemical messenger
proteins called growth factors, as well as (in the case of hormone-
dependent cancers) hormones such as oestrogen. Produced by our own bodies,
growth factors perform vital tasks such as making cells grow. Other
substances called binding proteins normally control them, including their
potential impact on cancer cells. The risk of cancer arises when we have
abnormally high levels of “unbound” growth factors (or hormones) circulating
in our blood.
This can happen, say Profs Plant and Djamgoz, because the same growth factors
and hormones as we produce are found in food that comes from animals,
providing the very “fertiliser” that cancer cells need. Casein, the main
protein in cows’ milk, is considered most dangerous. One eminent US
nutritional scientist, Prof Colin Campbell at Cornell University, argues
that it should be regarded just like oestrogen – as a leading carcinogen.
“Cow’s milk [organic or otherwise] has been shown to contain 35 different
hormones and 11 growth factors,” says Prof Plant. High circulating levels of
one such growth factor in milk, called IGF-1, is now strongly linked to the
development of many cancers. Research has also found that “unbound” IGF
levels are lower in vegans than in both meat-eaters and other vegetarians.
“This means that a vegan diet is lower in cancer-promoting molecules and
higher in the binding proteins that reduce the action of these molecules,”
A second growth factor implicated in cancer spread is VEGF, found at high
levels in cancer patients and a target for some newer anti-cancer drugs.
Prof Plant points out that in the udders of cows with mastitis, VEGF is
present to help fight infection. Mastitis is thought to affect nearly half
of all cows in Britain. “There are increasing numbers of papers about high
levels of VEGF in milk, particularly from high- yielding cattle breeds
typical of modern industrialised dairy units.
“It seems likely that if a cancer patient is consuming dairy products, they
are also consuming VEGF, especially if the milk originated from cows with
mastitis. That is not helping to defeat their illness – and it may be making
She is particularly worried about the fashion for high- protein diets,
pointing out that there is evidence that too much protein generally –
particularly from animals – is “at best unhelpful and at worst dangerous to
those at risk of cancer”.
A second theory around diet concerns the levels of acid in our bodies. Prof
Plant explains that if we consume too much acid-generating food, our bodies
become acidic – an environment in which cancer cells can flourish. The foods
highest in generating acid (not, as might be assumed, citrus fruit) include
eggs, meat, fish and dairy – with cheese the most acid generating-food of
For those with cancer or at high risk of the disease, Prof Plant advocates,
among other things, cutting out all dairy – from cows, sheep and goats, and
whether organic or not. “If you have active cancer, there are no
She also recommends limiting consumption of other animal protein, such as
meat, fish and eggs, replacing this with vegetable protein such as soya –
the main source of protein, she points out, in a traditional, rural Chinese
But if the evidence that cutting out dairy can successfully “beat cancer” is
that strong, why haven’t we been told?
Prof Plant puts it down to vested interests – the dairy industry represents
about 12 per cent of Britain’s GDP – and medical conservatism: oncologists,
she says, “might be excellent at conventional treatments but are not experts
in nutritional biochemistry”. The big cancer charities, for their part,
place too much emphasis on drug development. As a result, “if you rely
solely on the cancer prevention advice from government, charities, health
professionals or the media, you will be missing out on vital and potentially
life- saving information.”
Cancer Research UK argues that so far studies investigating a link between
cancer and dairy products have not given clear results.
“There’s no good evidence to support avoiding all dairy with the aim of
reducing cancer risk,” said Martin Ledwick at Cancer Research UK. “It isn’t
known if avoiding dairy plays a role in stopping cancer coming back.
Patients should speak to their doctor or a qualified dietician before making
any changes to their diet.”
Prof Plant acknowledges that advising cancer patients – and anyone keen on
prevention – to change what they eat so radically is “a big ask”. Yet her
own menu for that day – Weetabix and soya milk with molasses and linseeds
for breakfast, wholegrain bread with hummus and salad for lunch and for that
night, minestrone soup with cannellini beans, followed by pasta with
homemade tomato sauce – is not so alien.
“People always worry about where they will get calcium if they give up dairy,”
she says. “But you can get it from many plant sources.” Growth factors and
hormones should be labelled on all dairy products, she argues, although
eventually a wholesale shift away from dairy is needed.
Approaching her 70th birthday, Prof Plant has so far survived 27 years and six
diagnoses of cancer and is a pretty convincing advert for the diet she
advocates. Her story, though, has a sting in its tail: two weeks ago, a scan
undertaken for a broken collarbone picked up two small secondaries, one in
each lung. She is now taking tamoxifen and seems confident that a
combination of medical treatment, diet and relaxation will knock this
recurrence on the head.
“As a scientist, all I can do is tell the truth based on the evidence,” she
says. “I started my first book because I didn’t want my daughter [Emma, now
39] to go through what I went through. All my books have come out of not
wanting this to happen to others.”
‘Beat Cancer: The 10-Step Plan to Help you Overcome and Prevent Cancer’ by
Prof Mustafa Djamgoz and Prof Jane Plant is published by Vermilion (£14.99)
THE ‘BEAT CANCER’ DIET
Beat Cancer advises anyone with cancer or at high risk of the disease to cut
out all dairy products, organic or not, from cows, sheep, goats and all
other animals. Replace:
Dairy milk with almond, coconut, rice or soya milk
Hard cheese with tofu or bean curd for sauces, soft cheese with hummus
Dairy yoghurt with soya or coconut yoghurt
Crème fraiche, fromage frais and cream with coconut or soya cream
Butter and margarines containing dairy with soya spreads, hummus, peanut or
other nut or seed butter
Dairy ice cream with soya, coconut ice cream or other dairy-free types; milk
chocolate with dark chocolate
Other advice includes replacing refined and processed oils with
extra-virgin olive oil; refined and man-made sugars with raw cane sugar;
refined white bread, pasta and rice with unrefined wholegrain products; and
cutting out preservatives and artificial flavourings and colourings.
Consumption of meat, fish and eggs should also be limited. Instead, eat
unrefined carbohydrates, beans, nuts, vegetables and fruit. Salt is best
replaced by herbs, and coffee by homemade juices, tap water and herbal tea.
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