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  • Writer's pictureBonnie Doran

Cancer and Sugar

Everybody says that sugar causes cancer. The truth is more complicated than that.

Photo by Jamin Djuang on

The concept has been around since the 1924 publication of Dr. Otto Warburg’s paper, On Metabolism of Tumors. He was a Nobel-Prize-winning cell biologist who hypothesized that cancer growth was caused when cancer cells converted glucose into energy without using oxygen. Healthy cells make energy by converting pyruvate and oxygen, but cancer cells don’t oxidize pyruvate. Don’t ask me what “pyruvate” is. I’m too lazy to look it up.

However, cancer doesn’t work that way. It’s caused by genetic mutations, which can include inherited mutations or those acquired through exposure to carcinogens. Although healthy cells and cancer cells do convert their food to energy in different ways, that difference is an effect, not a cause, of cancer.

Despite the flaw in theories from the past, there appears to be some link between excess sugar levels and cancer. People with type II diabetes have an increased risk of several cancers. An elevated blood sugar level may contribute to the formation of cancer cells, resistance to cell death in cancer cells, and tumors becoming resistant to chemotherapy.

Tumor cells appear to use a combination of sugar and specific proteins to keep growing when old healthy cells would die and be replaced with new ones. These cancer cells appear to use sugar at a high rate in order to ignore the instructions to die off.

Researchers are devising ways to trick cancer cells into growing more slowly and eventually dying. They produced a hybrid molecule made of a simple sugar and n-butyrate, a type of salt. The cells soaked up this new molecule which interfered with their ability to keep growing, and they died.

Other teams of scientists are working on drugs that will take advantage of cancer’s weakness for sugar to make tumor cells more sensitive to chemo drugs.

Consuming more sugar-based foods is linked to obesity, and obesity is linked to cancer. Obesity alters hormone levels which are associated with a greater risk of both developing cancer and having a cancer recur or progress. According to the International Association for Research on Cancer, one of the best things to do to prevent cancer or prevent a recurrence is to be as lean as possible without being underweight.

It’s time for all of us to get serious about diet and exercise. Including me.


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