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Curbing Cancer's Sweet Tooth

Portait of Dr. Jocely Tan standing in a hospital hallway.

Dr. Jocelyn Tan is counting on a simple diet switch to stop cancer in its tracks.

By Valerie C. Coughanour
Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery have long formed the foundation of care plans for cancer patients. Dr. Jocelyn Tan, a physician and researcher at VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System, is hoping to give Veterans battling cancer another treatment option.


For years, Tan says that when she would hear others quip that, "sugar is bad for you, sugar causes cancer," she'd scoff. The science didn't support it.

"Now we know it's half true," she says.

The ubiquitous sweetener, according to Tan, doesn't cause cancer. But it can feed the disease once it starts. Even more: Without sugar, cancer cells will starve.

In her researcher role, Tan is introducing Veterans with advanced cancer to a ketogenic (high-fat, adequate-protein, low-carbohydrate) diet. This eating plan starves cancer cells while still meeting a patient's nutritional needs.

All Veterans enrolled in the study are former chemotherapy patients. And all have lost weight—partly from the diet and partly from the cancer treatments. Smaller scale numbers are just one of the eating plan's many benefits, according to Tan.

"Everybody loves the diet. They say they feel good," she says, adding that: "One patient who had been overweight and in a wheelchair lost all the extra weight and even started walking."

Another bonus? The diet gives Veterans a chance to feel more involved and engaged in their treatment. "It's a non-toxic, proactive alternative where patients can say, 'At least I feel like I'm doing something to help myself,'" says Tan.

About Research at VA Pittsburgh
VA Pittsburgh's $35 million research program supports 119 scientists and 334 active studies. Researchers tackle a wide range of topics—everything from post-traumatic stress disorder to lung cancer—with one razor-sharp focus: enhancing hero-worthy care for our Nation's Veterans.


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