University of California San Francisco
Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center

Can Wellness Cure?

UCSF Scientists Prove Benefits of Living a Healthy Lifestyle

By Kate Volkman | | May 30, 2013

Can Wellness Cure?

Peter Carroll, MD

Should anyone doubt America’s mounting health crisis, a new report from the National Research Council and Institute of Medicine makes it crystal clear. On average, Americans of all ages die sooner and experience higher rates of disease than people in 16 other rich countries.

Even advantaged Americans with health insurance, college educations, and higher incomes appear to be sicker than their peers in other wealthy nations. While the reasons are varied and potential solutions complex, experts at UC San Francisco are proving that your mother’s admonishments – eat your vegetables, get off your duff, quiet down – may be just the prescription this nation needs.
Turns out, a healthy lifestyle can not only keep illness at bay, but it may even stop a disease like cancer dead in its tracks.
Healthy Living Halts Disease 
UCSF has long led the way in demonstrating the positive effects of living a healthy lifestyle.
Dean Ornish, MD, UCSF clinical professor of medicine and founder of the nonprofit Preventive Medicine Research Institute, was still in medical school when he witnessed a disturbing trend: a growing number of heart disease patients were having repeat bypass surgeries. Wondering what would happen if these patients stopped smoking and began to eat better, exercise more, manage their stress, and expand their social support networks, Ornish turned his curiosity into a first-ever study – with profound results.
Through this initial study and many since, he showed the arteries of heart disease patients become less clogged and their blood flow increases, effectively reversing their disease. 
Today, UCSF scientists across the disease spectrum are proving that a healthy lifestyle can have drug-like potency, among them Peter Carroll, MD, Department of Urology chair and co-leader of the Prostate Cancer Program at the UCSF Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center. Carroll, a resident alumnus, partnered with Ornish and the late William Fair, MD, of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in a major clinical trial that evaluated the effects of comprehensive lifestyle changes on prostate cancer. 
The team enrolled 93 men under “active surveillance,” whose doctors had caught their prostate cancer early enough to opt for regular monitoring through blood tests and biopsies, instead of the harsh surgery, radiation, or chemotherapy needed for later-stage cancers. 
Participants fell into two groups; one was asked to make comprehensive lifestyle changes, the other was not. Patients in the healthy lifestyle group participated in the same program Ornish developed for reversing heart disease – moderate aerobic exercise, yoga or meditation, a weekly support group session, and a low-fat vegan diet consisting primarily of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes supplemented with soy, vitamins, and minerals. 
Three short months later, the team observed a genetic change among men in the healthy lifestyle group. “More than 500 genes changed, and they moved in a beneficial direction every time,” says Ornish. “In particular, the genes that promote heart disease, prostate cancer, breast cancer, colon cancer, and diabetes were down-regulated, or ‘turned off,’ and other genes that discourage the development of these diseases were up-regulated, or ‘turned on.’”  
After one year, the team found that prostate-specific antigen (PSA) levels, a protein marker indicating the presence of prostate cancer, decreased in the healthy lifestyle group but increased in the other. The more closely participants in the first group followed the recommendations, the more their PSA decreased. When the team took serum (blood plasma) from participants in both groups and placed it in a petri dish with an unrelated prostate tumor sample, they observed that serum from the healthy lifestyle group inhibited the sample’s growth by 70 percent, while the control group serum restrained it by only 9 percent. 
"I tell my patients there’s evidence that if you change your diet and exercise you may both prevent cancer and change its progression once you have it,” says Carroll. “Depending on the degree of cancer, it can be done in conjunction with standard treatment, or for some people it could be in lieu of immediate treatment."