Short-Term Fasting and Cancer Survival

For Survivors


Hi Friend!  Welcome back to our journey of empowering cancer survivors through the lens of nutritional science. Today, we embark on a compelling exploration of short-term fasting (STF) and its potential impact on cancer survivorship.

While short term fasting has generated buzz in recent years, we really should tread cautiously. This approach is not a one-size-fits-all solution, especially when it comes to combining it with chemotherapy and other cancer treatments. Our focus remains on your well-being, and any dietary decisions should be made in consultation with your healthcare team. 

Background of STF 

If someone says “fasting” you are probably thinking of intermittent fasting. Conversely, there are so many different types that are used in research. Short-term fasting (STF) diets include restricted intake of calories and protein for several days, usually done every couple of weeks. This specific type of fasting has been under the scientific microscope for years, with animal models revealing promising insights across various cancer types. However, the leap from mice to humans requires a nuanced understanding. In the meantime, and we eagerly await more comprehensive data to tailor recommendations to your unique journey.

The Science Behind STF and Cancer Survivorship

In the intricate dance between STF and cancer cells, scientists have uncovered intriguing mechanisms. In studies involving our furry friends, combining chemotherapy with STF showcased a decline in tumor growth. The magic lies in how STF appears to shield healthy cells, making chemotherapy more potent against cancer cells.

Understanding the Protective Response of STF

Healthy cells, in response to STF, activate what scientists term “Differential Stress Resistance” (DSR). Under the influence of STF, healthy cells redirect energy towards maintenance and repair pathways while dampening growth-promoting signals. It’s a cellular strategy that has evolved over time to protect the host in times of scarcity.

Navigating Nutrient-Sensing Pathways

Nutrient-sensing pathways, the cellular traffic controllers, play a pivotal role. When nutrients are scarce, these pathways guide cells towards repair and maintenance rather than growth. The activation of these pathways is believed to reduce DNA damage and oxidative stress, offering protection to our resilient healthy cells.

Balancing IGF-1, Insulin, and Immunity

STF seems to regulate insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1) and insulin levels, influencing cancer cell growth pathways. Additionally, STF may enhance immunity and safeguard healthy cells through various mechanisms.

AMPK: The Cellular Energy Guardian

Another player in this intricate symphony is AMP-activated protein kinase (or AMPK), an enzyme monitoring cellular energy levels. When energy is scarce, AMPK steps in to inhibit excessive growth and promote programmed cell death—a balancing act crucial for cellular health.

Unique Vulnerability of Cancer Cells During STF

Interestingly, cancer cells don’t adapt as flexibly to nutrient deprivation as healthy cells. Oncogenic (cancer causing) mutations and disruptions in tumor suppressor genes render cancer cells more susceptible to chemotherapy-induced toxicity. In essence, short-term fasting seems to amplify how effective chemotherapy works against cancer cells.

Realizing the Potential of STF: What the Human Studies Say

While findings from mouse studies are promising, the translation to humans is a bit like decoding a complex puzzle—still in progress. In our realm of human experiences, small studies have explored the potential benefits of STF in cancer survivors. While findings are not conclusive, some survivors undergoing STF alongside chemotherapy reported a decrease in side effects like nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, fatigue, and weakness. It is important to note that those with cachexia (severe muscle loss) and malnutrition may want to avoid STF regimens since the calorie restriction can exacerbate weight loss and worsen outcomes.

Looking to the Future: More Research Needed

As we navigate this intricate landscape, it’s crucial to understand that the current body of evidence is still in its infancy. More extensive clinical trials are needed to understand the optimal fasting window and mechanisms through which STF can enhance survivorship when combined with chemotherapy.

Using Nutrition to Support The Cancer Survivor’s Journey

Navigating nutrition during and after cancer treatment is a critical aspect of supporting survivors on their journey to optimal health. As a cancer dietitian, my guidance is grounded in the most up-to-date scientific evidence and strong human data, recognizing the pivotal role that nutrition plays in enhancing cancer survival.

First and foremost, maintaining a well-balanced and nutrient-dense diet is key. Adequate caloric intake, along with a focus on diverse and colorful fruits and vegetables, provides essential vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants that contribute to overall health and immune function. Protein is a crucial component, supporting muscle maintenance and repair, particularly important for cancer survivors experiencing the physical toll of treatment.

Personalized Nutrition

In recent years, research has underscored the significance of personalized nutrition for cancer survivors. Tailoring dietary recommendations to an individual’s specific needs and tolerances is essential. For instance, managing side effects such as nausea or taste changes may involve adjusting the types of foods consumed or exploring smaller, more frequent meals. The incorporation of whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats aligns with evidence demonstrating the positive impact of a well-rounded diet on treatment outcomes.


Hydration is often underestimated but is a vital element in cancer survivorship. Staying well-hydrated supports the body’s natural detoxification processes and helps alleviate common treatment-related symptoms like fatigue.


In summary, the best nutrition practices for cancer survivors revolve around a personalized, nutrient-rich, and well-balanced diet. These practices are not only supported by strong human data but also reflect the evolving landscape of nutritional science, ensuring that survivors receive the tailored support needed for their unique journey toward improved health and longevity. 

As a cancer dietitian, my commitment is to provide evidence-based guidance that empowers survivors to cultivate resilience and vitality through the nourishment of both body and spirit. Click HERE to apply to my very high level of support and guidance inside my VIP 1:1 Cancer Nutrition Coaching Program.

This blog is not intended as medical nutrition therapy, medical advice, or diagnosis and should in no way replace consultation or recommendation from your medical professional.

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