Book Review: The Cancer Code

The Cancer Code by Jason Fung

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


Nobody loves codes as much as iconoclast physician Jason Fung. This is his third code so far. Though it’s easy to suppose they’d be spiritual successors the Robert Langdon trilogy of shitty mystery novels, Doc Fung instead focuses his energy on street-teaming for intermittent fasting and pushing low-carb paleo living without ever saying the word “paleo”, for which we’re all grateful.

Now, full disclosure, I haven’t read the Diabetes Code, but my high IQ and longtime Rick and Morty enjoyment makes me pretty good at recognizing patterns, so I’m still going to take a stab at cracking all three codes for you, right now, to save you the thousand or so pages it would take to assemble the whole picture of “the Wellness Code”, which apparently contains the cancer code, but neither the diabetes nor obesity code. Fung moves in mysterious ways. Coded ways.

Here’s the Konami code to health: Insulin is the devil. Minimize insulin exposure, maximize everything else from disease resilience to longevity to looking sleek and sexual at the beach.

Fung’s money is where his mouth is. I googled him, and he looks pretty ripped, especially for a doctor. He’s not massive or anything, not like that one doctor on Instagram who keeps trying to sell you special rubber bands to use in place of weights. All other things constant, I could beat up Dr. Fung, but I would never, as he inspires me.

The Cancer Code details the sordid history of attempting to treat cancer and its repeated, catastrophic failures. It’s implied that cancer is a disease of civilization, as outside of agrarian societies it’s rare to the point of mythical. Immunotherapy seems to be the most effective, if the least profitable, treatment option, but Jason Fung gently suggests (as most of my favorite practicing scientists, psychologists, and medical professionals tend to) that we don’t know shit about dick and consequently fall back on tried-and-true Hail Marys like radio- and chemotherapy, which poisons everything in hopes of killing the cancer.

Cancer is a disease of irregular cell growth. Normally, cell growth is a pretty good thing, but only if the cells cooperate with what is expected of them within the confines of the tissue they comprise. Cancer is the wires getting crossed and the cells in, say, the liver deciding that cooperation is too chancy and they’ll go it alone from here. The cells revert from eukaryotic function to a more primitive, prokaryotic function, remembered in the DNA from back in the days when each cell was fighting for its own life. And that’s what cancer is. These cells grow and propagate individually as fast as they can, sabotaging and consuming the surrounding cells (who are still being team players). The meme of cellular primeval psychopathy bounces all over the body, setting up satellite colonies, and that’s metastasis. Since these cells only care about individual survival now, the health of the organism isn’t taken into account, and it typically dies, taking the newly expanded cancer empire with it.

So how do we protect against cellular mutiny? As in most nutrition books, the message refines to Michael Pollan’s dietary dictum: Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.

Doc Fung is always pushing intermittent fasting, so that’s step one. After that, low carb. Step 2. Get some exercise, the human body needs to move. Step 3. Voila. You’re… not quite cancerproof, but you just improved your chances enormously.

Here’s the why.

He repeatedly likens cancer to a sort of weed that grows in the garden of your body. The thing is, it needs specific soil conditions and nutrients to take root and strangle out the rest of the garden. The most important of these conditions, these specialized weed-foods, is IGF-1, or insulin-like growth factor, released whenever we have an insulin response. The more insulin circulating in our system, the more IGF-1 comes with it. Insulin is pivotal for growth and development, especially for things like protein synthesis, testosterone production, and building muscle. We need some insulin, but we need it to serve its purpose.

Keeping the body perpetually inundated with insulin causes all sorts of stupid, avoidable problems, and it turns out cancer is a major one of them. A nonstop stream of IGF-1 keeps cells growing, and growing, and growing, and as soon as one flips the switch and decides it would do better on its own, baby, you a got a tumor goin’.

Caloric restriction, weight loss, and increased insulin sensitivity all help to shrink tumors, sometimes pushing them into full remission. Cancer needs insulin to grow. Burn the granaries and starve the empire.

Intermittent fasting becomes a magic bullet in this situation because not only does your insulin sensitivity improve when you phase out snacking, 16+ hours of fasting promotes increased autophagy, which is sort of like defragmenting your hard drive, if your hard drive was your body. Autophagy means “eating your own damn self” and it’s like a concerted effort within your body of looking for dying, damaged, or junk cells, then catabolizing them into component proteins and energy, potentially stopping fledgling cancer before it has a chance to foment rebellion.

It was a truly fascinating book, and a talisman against the 21st century’s answer to the Grim Reaper. Now that I think about it, it’s kind of ironic that he carried a wheat scythe.




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Book Review: The Primal Blueprint

The Primal Blueprint: Reprogram Your Genes for Effortless Weight Loss, Vibrant Health, and Boundless EnergyThe Primal Blueprint: Reprogram Your Genes for Effortless Weight Loss, Vibrant Health, and Boundless Energy by Mark Sisson

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Another ungabunga paleo supremacy book winds up in my reviews, big surprise, but this one left me really conflicted, probably because the author was so flagrantly Californian.

The Good:
Our mans is a successful ultramarathoner, lifelong athlete, and current health coach, so he knows his stuff. He explained the function of insulin in a way I finally understood, after half a dozen books have tried with varying levels of success. (I still had to copy a paraphrase down in my sketchbook for it to fully land, though. Real science is hard.)

The laws of the primal blueprint are as instinctive as you’d expect of something called “the laws of the primal blueprint”. Eat food, don’t eat not food, exercise intelligently, sleep, play, use your brain, put down the goddamn nintendo and go outside. Conceptually solid. Mom was right. Outside of that, it’s the usual awakened caveman shtick — move how evolution intended, wheat and sugar are the devil, manage your stress, and everything will fall into place.

Nothing here I can argue with, and nothing I would argue with even if I could. This is how I keep my house in order, and it’s why I’m such a little fuckin’ ray of sunshine.

The Bad:
It’s a pyramid scheme. The clown name-drops his personal line of “primal supplements” constantly throughout the book. With names like “Primal Probiotics”, “Damage Control”, and “Adaptogenic Calm”, and at a measly $30 to $50 a bottle, you know you’re in good hands. Primal pill supplements! You know, like australopithecus used to order!

Or if you want to take it the rest of the way, how about becoming a “Certified Primal Health Coach”? That’s right, for a one-time payment of $4,495.00, Sisson will tell you the 10 steps to being a functional person again, then print you a little diploma. Hopefully he sprang for some Captain Caveman clipart, but I’d be hesitant to try to juke around Hannah Barbera’s copyright, too.

Now that we’re a nice round $5k in the hole, we can truly begin our Primal Adventure (note: actual Primal Adventure packages sold separately).

Most of the science in the book held up, but I took issue with the exercise part. Again, I’m sure we are all gawp-mouthed and astounded. Sisson presses for maintaining a heart rate between 55 and 75% of your max HR for the “comfortable pace” movement, which he advocates to get as often as you can. That, two days of weightlifting a week, and 20 minute HIIT sprints every other week and you will be a marvel of primal athleticism! You will be Caesar from Planet of the Apes, but smooth and sexy!

Thing is, I’m in good shape, and I can get my HR up to 55% walking my dog. And my dog is real slow, fellas. He’s huge.

But, benefit of the doubt, I tried that for a week. It was a massive drop-off from my normal regimen of what he would call “chronic cardio” and I would call “a pitiful 20-minute run every morning”. And what to my wondering eyes should appear but that week I barely lost any weight (half a lb) as compared to my consistent 2 lb/week loss I’ve maintained since January. I was also grinding my molars down to nubs with all my excess pent-up energy, because 3-5 hours of brisk walking a week is not an exercise regimen, as any extant hunter gatherer society will tell you.

Now, granted, I lost those 40 lbs following the primal blueprint, but only incidentally. If you exercise, sleep enough, and eat primarily meat and vegetables, you’re going to get healthier and trimmer no matter what. Even if you don’t spring for the year’s supply of Primal Fish Oil.

Sisson spends the whole book talking about how buying into his program will improve your generalized fitness, not only your health but your non-specific athleticism. Grok (the cringe-inducing fictional caveman he chose to represent primitive man in his contrasts between diet and lifestyles in the prehistoric and modern worlds) had to be ready for anything, so he had to be well-rounded. He achieved this by following the 10 laws, and they made him not only healthier and happier, but spry right up until the end of his days.

There’s some truth to this. You don’t need to be an anthropologist to see the difference between a modern hunter-gatherer elder and the shuffling ghouls that Westernization has inflicted on the rest of the world as a perceived inevitability after retirement.

So I was willing to buy it, right up until Sisson talked about how he busted his leg and wound up in traction for six months playing Ultimate Frisbee (which of COURSE he just referred to as Ultimate) in his early 50s.

All this can be yours for the low, low price of $4,495.00.

The only other gripe I had was all the middle-aged woman yard sale jokes he polluted the writing with, but honestly, after tallying the rest of the issues, it feels petty to take a star off for that.

Two stars. One for explaining insulin to me, the other for confirming my bias.

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