Cancer and the China Study on Vitamins

If you were to walk into a natural products store and ask the manager which supplements you need to treat and beat cancer, the answer might be “All of them.” The fact is, however, people who have cancer should emphasize different supplements at different stages of disease and recovery. But don’t nutritional supplements always help?


I learned the answer to this question from the famous China Study. Two days after Christmas 1994 I was drinking coffee in the cozy office of German food chemist, nutritionist, and author Udo Pollmer. We did not spend a lot of time on small talk, because Udo said he had something I simply had to see. My host was excited to bring my attention to the huge stack of computer printouts sitting on a very large work table.


“These printouts,” Udo said, “are the China Study.” In 1994, almost no one outside of China, and not working for the British pharmaceutical firms organizing the research, had ever heard of the China Study. Eighteen years earlier the government of the People’s Republic of China had ordered nearly every one of its then 760,000,000 citizens to submit to interviews with trained nutritionists who then correlated hundreds of nutritional variables with health outcomes. Millions of Chinese citizens chosen at random also submitted blood and urine samples in addition to the food diaries everyone had to prepare. Even yak herders in the western province of Xinxiang were tracked down by government nutritionists and invited to fill out food diaries, although they were given extra time to get their booklets back to the inspectors.


We spent hours and hours going through data. We looked at over 20,000 pairings of over 300 variables. And of all these thousands of correlations of nutrition and health, one finding was especially significant. Chinese people who took vitamin C supplements were hundreds of times more likely than the average to die of cancer. There could be very little doubt of the finding. The way statistics work, there is always the possibility a finding is just plain wrong. In this case, it would not have to be a one in a million fluke. It would be closer to a one in a trillion chance error.


But, as statisticians will tell you, correlation is not the same as causation. My German friend thought that maybe vitamin supplements cause cancer. I disagreed, speculating that since any kind of nutritional supplement was a rarity in China during the years just after Mao’s death, perhaps the only people who were given vitamins were those already near death. But the most exhaustive study of nutrition and disease in the history of the world certainly did not prove that nutritional supplements prevent or treat cancer. It just showed that it is always a good idea to look at any “scientific” findings very closely.


This evidence of the China Study, often misquoted by people who have not seen the actual data, flies in the face of the truth that that your body fights cancer with the help of vitamins and antioxidants. Nearly everyone supposes that well-known elements of nutrition are essential to getting well. Or are they? If vitamins are so important to fighting cancer, why doesn’t everybody who takes a lot of some helpful supplement go into remission?


The answer is the body becomes a little schizophrenic in its nutritional requirements during cancer, especially if treatment or the cancer itself interferes with normal eating habits. There is no reason to doubt that the body needs vitamins, minerals, and essential fatty acids as it fights cancer. When the diet does not provide enough of these essential nutrients, however, the body allocates more of the nutrients to some organs and less to others. It ensures short-term survival at the expense of long-term survival.


That means nutrients go to the adrenal glands, brain, heart, kidneys, and lungs before they go to the bladder, bones, breast, colon, liver, lymphatic system, prostate, or skin. In cancer, you can have both nutritional excesses and nutritional deficiencies at the same time. If cancer causes a localized nutritional surplus, you may need antioxidants and enzymes to help your body deal with metabolic excesses. If cancer causes a localized nutritional deficiency, you may need a combination of nutrients to help the affected organs function optimally. To treat and beat cancer, you need the right “cocktail,” or combination of exactly the nutrients the individual tissues need. And you need the right nutrients to fight your kind of cancer.