Dean Ornish: Can Healthy Eating Reverse Some Cancers? Dr. Dean Ornish studied how lifestyle changes could help people with chronic heart disease; he wanted to figure out if there was a way to do the same with some types of cancer.
NPR logo

Can Healthy Eating Reverse Some Cancers?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Can Healthy Eating Reverse Some Cancers?

Can Healthy Eating Reverse Some Cancers?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. On today's show, ideas about where we're headed in the fight against cancer, and we've been hearing about some of the super-advanced research that's revolutionizing our approach to cancer. But what if fighting cancer could be as simple as a healthy breakfast?

DEAN ORNISH: (Laughter).

RAZ: Yeah, what did you have?

ORNISH: I had a bowl of whole-grain cereal with some blueberries and some low-sugar soymilk.

RAZ: So listen up here. Take some notes. This is Dean Ornish. He's a professor of clinical medicine at UC San Francisco. But he's probably best known for the Dean Ornish Program. It's a lifestyle that includes...

ORNISH: A whole foods, plant-based diet, fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, soy products, moderate exercise, such as walking half an hour a day, various stress management techniques, yoga and meditation, and social support - really, love and intimacy - or in simple terms, you know, eat well, move more, stress less and love more.

RAZ: And all of these things, he says, could help prevent, maybe even reverse, conditions like heart disease or type 2 diabetes and even slow the progression of some cancers. Now, that idea might not seem new today, but Dean Ornish was one of the very first doctors to actually test it out about 10 years ago.

ORNISH: So we began a study with 93 men who had biopsy-proven prostate cancer and who had elected, for reasons unrelated to our study, not to be treated conventionally.

RAZ: Meaning they didn't want to have surgery.

ORNISH: They didn't want to have surgery or radiation or chemotherapy. So we found that by taking men who had decided not to be treated conventionally, we could then randomly divide them into two groups, put half of them on this intensive lifestyle program and half of them on their, you know, usual care. And then we measure them after a year.

RAZ: So for half the men, the Dean Ornish Program, and the other half made no lifestyle changes. Dean picks up the story from the TED stage.


ORNISH: What we found was that after a year, none of the experimental group patients who made these lifestyle changes needed treatment, whereas six of the control group patients needed surgery or radiation. When we looked at their PSA levels, which is a marker for prostate cancer...

RAZ: OK, so just to break in here. PSA stands for prostate specific antigen. It's a protein, and high levels of PSA in your blood usually indicates prostate cancer.


ORNISH: When we looked at their PSA levels, they got worse in the control group, but they actually got better in the experimental group, and these differences were highly significant. And then I wondered, was there any relationship between how much people change their diet and lifestyle, whichever group they were in, and the changes in PSA? And sure enough, we found a dose-response relationship, and in order for the PSA to go down, they had to make pretty big changes.

RAZ: So the bigger the lifestyle changes, the bigger the drop in PSAs.


ORNISH: And finally I said, I wonder if there's any relationship between how much people change and how much it inhibited their tumor growth. And this really got me excited because, again, we found the same pattern - the more people change, the more it effected the growth of their tumors. And whether or not you have conventional treatment, in addition, if you make these changes, it may help reduce the risk of recurrence.

RAZ: So Dean's talking about pretty big results for these men just from adopting a semi-vegan diet, walking, yoga, meditation and more time around the people they loved.

ORNISH: We looked at some of the mechanisms to help explain why that may be true. We found, for example, that over 500 genes were changed in just three months. In fact, turning on the good genes that protect us and particularly down-regulating the - what are called oncogenes, that promote prostate, breast and colon cancer. The good ones were turned on, the bad ones were turned off. We then found that telomeres, the ends of our chromosomes that control aging, and as they're likened to the plastic tips at the ends of shoelaces that keep your shoelace from unraveling, they help to keep your DNA from unraveling. And normally, as we get older, our telomeres get shorter. And as our telomeres get shorter, our risk of cancer and heart disease and dementia and pretty much everything goes up correspondingly. We found that these same lifestyle changes could lengthen telomeres by about 10 percent in men with early-stage prostate cancer. You know, so often people say, oh, I've just got bad genes, you know, what can I do about? Well, it turns out you can do a lot, and much more quickly than we had once thought possible if you simply make intensive changes in diet and lifestyle.

RAZ: So when you started looking into this kind of thing, right, like, basically lifestyle changes, were your colleagues or other doctors saying, like, this is crackpot stuff?

ORNISH: Oh, very much so. They'd say, oh, this is so touchy-feely. And I'd say yeah, no, no, look at our quantitative arteriograms and our cardiac positron emission tomography and radionuclide ventriculography and blah, blah, blah. And then one day I said, you know, this is touchy-feely. That's what makes it work so well. And we know that these things affect the quality of our lives, but they actually affect our survival. You know, study after study have shown that people who are lonely and depressed are 3 to 10 times more likely to get sick and die prematurely when compared to those who have a sense of love and connection and community. And so we bring that into our program, not as something that's confounding, but as what enables people to make sustainable changes because it fulfills a deep, primal need for connection and community - this human need that we have. Now again, a skeptic might say, oh, give me a break. You mean talking about my feelings is going to help me live longer if I've got cancer, please. And yet, that's what these studies show because we are touchy-feely creatures. We are creatures of community.

RAZ: There are a lot of studies that - a lot of what determines who gets cancer and who doesn't is just bad luck.

ORNISH: Well, there is an element of luck or mystery or karma or destiny or whatever, you know, system you want to put this in. But that doesn't mean that if you change your lifestyle, you're going to be guaranteed you're never going to get cancer or heart disease or other conditions. And nor is it true that it's all random either. They're somewhere in the middle. But we have more control than we had once thought, and I find that very empowering. And it does give many people new hope and new choices that they didn't have before. And so what I find really makes these changes sustainable is not fear of dying, it's joy of living. That when you change your diet and exercise and do yoga and meditation and have more love and support in your life, most people find that they feel so much better so quickly, it reframes the reason for making these changes from fear to joy and pleasure, and that ultimately is what makes them worth doing.

RAZ: Dean Ornish, he's a professor of medicine at UC San Francisco. His TED talk is at By the way, if you're curious, we've put up links to his studies on lifestyle and prostate cancer. You can find them at

Copyright © 2015 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.