Alix Hayden has brain cancer, but instead of undergoing surgery and grueling chemotherapy, she's fighting it with the low-carb, high-fat ketogenic diet and has been doing great so far.
In an exclusive interview, Hayden discussed her metabolic diet therapy and navigating cancer with a positive attitude.
Alix, director of operations at biochemistry research firm Phenomenome Discoveries in Saskatoon, Canada, was diagnosed with brain cancer in August 2012.
She has been following the ketogenic diet (which is a very low-carb, high-fat, moderate-protein diet) since February 2013, which cancer researcher Dr. Dominic D'Agostino told me starves cancer cells.
This is because all the cells in our body can use both fat and glucose (a carb), but cancer cells thrive on glucose and cannot survive on ketones. So by limiting carbohydrates — which turns into glucose inside the body — we can starve cancer cells.
"When we restrict carbs in our diet, we can prevent pro-inflammatory spikes in blood glucose and blood insulin," explained D'Agostino, who has a Ph.D. in physiology and neuroscience. "Suppression of blood glucose and insulin spikes can be very helpful when managing many chronic diseases."
A ketogenic diet has already proven effective at producing rapid weight loss, at treating epilepsy, and protecting brain health. Neurologist Dr. David Perlmutter, author of Grain Brain, told me the ketogenic diet prevents — and in some instances reverses — Alzheimer's disease and ADHD.
"Carbs are devastating for the brain," said Dr. Perlmutter. "Even slight elevations in blood sugar have been shown to increase the risk of Alzheimer’s disease."
Dr. Jeff Volek, author of The Art and Science of Low-Carbohydrate Living, told me the ketogenic diet accelerates weight loss, reverses type 2 diabetes, and prevents heart disease and cancer. "There are very few people that a ketogenic diet could not help," said Dr. Volek.
Alix's Tumor Has Not Spread
Hayden's diet is roughly 65% fats, 30% protein, and 5% carbs. Her brain tumor hasn't gotten smaller since she began the ketogenic diet, but it also hasn't gotten any bigger — which is a great sign.
Alix, who's in her thirties, gets an MRI every six months and is holding off on chemotherapy and radiation, as her brain tumor was categorized as slow-growing. Hayden started a blog called Greymadder to chronicle her cancer recovery, which has made her something of an Internet celebrity.
Question: You've been following the ketogenic diet for over a year now to treat your cancer. How are you feeling?
I feel very good. I did experience an adjustment period, about two weeks or so when I began the ketogenic diet, that was rather 'flu-like.' After that, I was astonished at how quickly my energy came back.
Having a lifelong interest in fitness and health, both my husband and I were surprised week after week to watch the changes in my body fat, to see ketone levels maintained in my blood once I got the hang of the diet. About seven months into the diet, my husband looked at me and said, 'You know, I think you are without doubt healthier today than you were a year ago, even considering the brain tumor!'
Question: Why did you decide to follow the ketogenic diet to manage your cancer?
About six months after my diagnosis, I started searching for lifestyle intervention information. I work in biochemistry research, on cancer, and for a few months after my diagnosis, it was as though my mental machinery was stuck.
I know from the work my company does that diet and lifestyle affect metabolic factors, and that these have a direct effect on health and health risk. I knew that lifestyle interventions have just as much place in treatment and prevention as any other modality, it just took me awhile to get moving on it.
Once I started searching online, I eventually found the work of Dr. Thomas Seyfried at Boston College, who seemed like the preacher to my choir. He had published work on cancer as a metabolic disorder, and reading his work led me to the idea of using the ketogenic diet to manage cancer, particularly brain tumors.
Question: Do your doctors have an opinion on your diet therapy?
No. I've told all of my doctors, my oncologist, my neurosurgeon, my neurologist, about my diet. I did not ask for their help in adopting it, I just began slowly and felt I had enough good information to take it on myself. I was also not undergoing any other treatment at the time.
I'm on a 'watchful waiting' program designed to monitor the tumor for progression, so I was in a position where I didn't have to be concerned about effects on treatment. One of my doctors, when I told him a few months in, said, 'We could all stand to cut out sugar.' That was really the extent of the conversation I've had with my doctors about it.
Question: What's a typical daily menu for you?
Typically, I start my day with a good-sized breakfast, always with a coffee or iced coffee supplemented with MCT or coconut oil and heavy cream. Along with that, I'll have about four slices of bacon and half an avocado, or full-fat Greek yogurt.
I often make a flax meal one-minute microwave muffin as well, half of which makes for a good morning snack. Lunch is typically a salad with fish or chicken. Snacks are usually macadamia nuts or cheese. Supper involves some sort of meat, fatty cuts preferred, and usually two green vegetables, say sautéed spinach and a green salad, with a side like riced cauliflower. I sauté in butter, and end the day with another creamy hot or cold drink containing more oils."
Question: You seem so upbeat. How do you maintain a positive attitude during this challenging time?
I believe I'm fortunate in that I'm naturally a positive person. My situation is one where this waiting pattern could (and hopefully will) go on for quite some time, so I have tried to adjust to a new normal and understand that I'm not 'sicker' in some way than I was two years ago. I had that brain tumor then, I just didn't know it.
I try not to let seeing it on a scan change my fundamental understanding of my identity as a successful woman with a career and a lovely family. Sometimes I try to ignore or forget it. Sometimes it works best to joke about it. Sometimes it's scary and overwhelming and I have to start all over again.
Question: Do you have any advice for other cancer patients who are considering the ketogenic diet?
I always recommend that everyone do his or her own research, and speak to their doctors, and of course consider how the change in diet might affect ongoing treatments. There are good dieticians out there who will help and offer advice, there are some available online who specialize in cancer diets. It's probably most responsible to get expert help and advice.
But mostly, I think we have to be responsible for our own paths in life, and ultimately, it's your life, so you should do what you think is correct and credible and not be discouraged by naysayers. Taking action feels good. Taking control feels good. I can only speak for my experience, but I've felt healthier on this diet, which feels good."