Global spending on cancer treatment crossed the US$100 billion threshold for the first time last year, which was cause for celebration among pharmaceuticals companies. It was hardly good news for cancer sufferers though, as about eight million people still die from the disease every year, the World Health Organisation says.
In December, with the dollar figure close to its new milestone, Vietnamese retiree Nguyen Bao An was diagnosed with stage-four liver cancer and given three months to live. Almost 10 months after his fateful visit to the doctor, however, the 64-year-old former driver's health has improved considerably after receiving traditional treatment - absolutely free - at a Buddhist temple and clinic in rural Vietnam. The apparent cure has been traditional Vietnamese medicines, a vegan diet, and spiritual teachings to soothe his mind, says Hongkonger Paul Tarrant, Nguyen's son-in-law.
Nguyen's tumours have reduced in size to the point where he has a good chance of making a full recovery, says Tarrant, who, with his wife and two daughters, is a Buddhist.
Stage four is the most advanced at which the disease is diagnosed, when cancer cells are in the bloodstream and can spread to any part of the body. It's often a death sentence, and the diagnosis only adds to the patient's suffering.
Nguyen was cared for at home in the coastal city of Danang by Tarrant's wife Duyen and her twin sister Trang. Tarrant and Duyen are co-founders of two Karma Waters vegan restaurants and a responsible tourism company in the city. Tarrant says Nguyen was persuaded by his daughters to switch to a simple vegan diet or red rice and sesame seeds, supplemented by medicinal water from boiled lingzhi mushrooms, a drink of water and white turmeric powder, and a liver medicinal #tea. He was also encouraged to listen to recordings of Buddhist chants and read scripture.
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Foods with the highest levels of the compounds were most effective at slowing cancer growth, with exotic purple corn and chokeberries stopping the growth of colon cancer cells and killing 20% in lab tests. Foods less enriched with the pigments, such as radishes and black carrots, slowed the growth of colon cancer cells by 50% to 80%. Because the pigments, which belong to a class of antioxidant compounds known as anthocyanins, are not easily absorbed by the bloodstream, they travel through the stomach to the gastrointestinal tract, where they are taken up by surrounding tissues.
Their survival through to the lower part of the intestine may be the key to their role in preventing cancers in the tract, the scientists believe.
Researchers led by Monica Giusti, an expert in plant nutrients at Ohio State University, extracted anthocyanins from a variety of exotic and more common fruits and vegetables that all had a deep red, blue or purple hue and added them to flasks containing a suspension of human colon cancer cells.
When the team calculated how much of each extract was needed to reduce cancer cell growth by 50%, they found anthocyanin from purple corn to be the most potent. Chokeberries and bilberries were nearly as effective, while radish anthocyanin required nine times as much - or 131 micrograms per millilitre of cancer cell solution to cut cell growth by half.
In a second study, the researchers fed rats with colon cancer a diet of anthocyanin extracts from bilberries and chokeberries, which are most often used as flavourings in jams and fruit drinks. Colon tumours in the rats fell by 60% to 70% compared with a control group that were not given anthocyanin.
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