Like many patients, he focused first on conventional medical treatments after being diagnosed with non-smoker’s small cell lung cancer, which had spread to his brain
But before he died last week at the age of 50, Jonnie was increasingly convinced that it was holistic treatments, as well as standard cancer treatment, that bought him that extra time with the people he loved.
‘Although I was aware of holistic options, I initially thought I would go down the conventional medical route, ‘ he told the Mail in an interview last year that is being published for the first time here.
Within weeks of his diagnosis, Jonnie was handed a lifeline – a drug called osimertinib, a type of immunotherapy that blocks cancer cell growth.
The hope was that this would give him another two to three years, but its effects ‘lasted six months’, he said recently.
Yet the much-loved presenter of BBC‘s Escape to the Country managed to defy his bleak prognosis for several years after that, giving him precious time with his wife, Jessica, and their young children, Rex, now five, and two-year old twins Rafa and Cormac.
Alongside chemotherapy, radiotherapy and osimertinib, he started adopting a more holistic approach – which involved changing his diet (swapping meat for fish and cutting out sugary and high-carb foods), taking supplements, intermittent fasting, vitamin C infusions, having sessions in a hyperbaric oxygen tank and taking a cocktail of ‘repurposed’ medications including the antibiotic doxycycline – usually prescribed for treating acne, for example – and mebendazole, a worm treatment.
Jonnie felt that he was able to spend more time with his wife Jessica and their children thanks to a mix of standard cancer treatment and holistic treatments
Jonnie ran everything he was taking past his ‘excellent oncologist, who’s at the top of his game, to make sure he was OK with it’, he told a podcast in December. ‘I feel so much more open-minded – probably because I have a gun to my head.’
And he believed this complementary approach, alongside conventional medicine, had really helped him.
As he told the Mail last March: ‘I would say I am winning the battle in that I am deteriorating at a slower pace. Although I am receiving conventional cancer treatment, I also wanted to look at other options. I felt I had nothing to lose.
‘My cancer is now very advanced, but I am convinced that changing my lifestyle and adopting a more holistic approach to treatment on top of this has given me more time and my cancer has progressed less quickly as a result.’
‘One of the reasons I am still here is because of a mixture of things – there are spheres of help and the NHS is part of that, but also my diet and other things have helped,’ he said in December.
The theory behind a more holistic approach to cancer, now advocated by several clinics in the UK, is to block the ‘feeding pathways’ for cancer cells using measures including lifestyle changes and supplements. Although Jonnie considered himself to be fit and active before his diagnosis, he admitted to the Mail that he loved sweet treats and ‘snacked a lot while filming’. At the time he thought little of it because he was trim and exercised regularly.
Some of this new thinking is hardly controversial. It’s generally accepted, for instance, that adopting a healthy lifestyle can dramatically cut your chances of developing cancer, by boosting your gut health and immune system and reducing inflammation – over time, chronic inflammation can cause DNA damage and lead to cancer.
But research is increasingly focusing on another potentially important mechanism: depriving cancer cells of the energy they need.
‘A holistic “multi-pronged” metabolic approach focuses on halting the way that cancer cells metabolise – ie harness energy to grow and divide,’ says Dr Hariharan Kuhan, medical lead at the Care Oncology Clinic in London, one of the most established of the clinics in the UK offering this approach.
Jonnie in hospital during his treatment for the lung cancer which spread to his brain
Jonnie with his wife Jessica at their home in Newcastle in 2022
‘The aim of a metabolic approach is to seek to enhance responses to conventional cancer treatment, and by no means compete with it,’ says Dr Kuhan, whose background is in oncology and general medicine.
He explains that cancer cells grow rapidly and consume more ‘fuel’ than healthy cells, and that adopting certain dietary and exercise regimens – and taking a particular combination of certain drugs – may disrupt cancer cells’ access to and use of the specific energy sources they need. This potentially weakens them and makes them more susceptible to standard treatments.
When it comes to diet, a mounting body of research points to the fact that the food we eat can increase our risk of developing cancer. A recent study by scientists at Imperial College London found that people who consume more ultra-processed foods (UPFs) such as mass-produced packaged biscuits and ready meals were at greater risk of cancer.
But increasingly it seems that nutrition can play a key role once cancer has been diagnosed. Adopting a diet high in vegetables, fruit, herbs, spices, nuts and healthy oils such as olive oil, and limiting meat consumption, can help reduce side-effects from conventional treatments, says Professor Robert Thomas, a consultant oncologist at Bedford hospital and Addenbrooke’s in Cambridge.
He also suggests that eating processed sugar and refined carbohydrates should be avoided, as these can lead to poor gut health, weight gain, raised insulin levels and excess inflammation, all of which are now linked to cancer formation and progression.
‘Some tumours – particularly breast and prostate cancer – have insulin receptors; high levels of insulin in the body can drive these cancers to proliferate, which is why it is important to keep insulin levels under control, particularly for patients with these cancers,’ adds Professor Thomas.
‘Insulin, as well as inflammation, increases excess growth of some cells and reduces cell death,’ says Dr Kuhan. ‘That means there is more opportunity for something to go wrong in the accumulating cells, and for cancer to develop. There are really good studies that show that changing your lifestyle habits, including eating well, staying active and maintaining a healthy weight, really decreases that risk for prostate, breast and bowel cancer in particular,’ says Dr Kuhan.
However, he stresses that it’s a complex picture, depending on the type of cancer and how advanced the disease is. ‘While early-stage cancers and solid tumours such as breast and ovarian cancer feed off glucose, later-stage cancers may harness energy from other sources, particularly fat and protein.’
Intermittent fasting – eating during ‘windows’ and ideally leaving a period of around 12 hours where no food is consumed – is also increasingly recommended by cancer nutritionists, says Dr Kuhan. The idea is that this gives the body a rest from producing insulin and digesting food.
It has been shown ‘to lower insulin resistance and other associated factors that can promote cancer growth and development – these include insulin-like growth factors [hormones associated with the growth of cancer which stimulate cell proliferation]’, says Dr Kuhan.
More controversial is the use of medication not licensed for cancer, such as the antibiotic and worm treatment which were taken by Jonnie Irwin.
A number of UK scientists are now looking into the potential for drugs normally prescribed to treat other conditions, such as diabetes and high cholesterol, to benefit cancer patients. Some research suggests that these slow down the rate at which the cancer cells proliferate, making them more receptive to conventional treatments.
These include aspirin, statins, metformin and doxycycline.
A newer form of doxycycline, doxy-myr, has been developed as an addition to cancer treatment by Michael Lisanti, a professor and chair of translational medicine and a specialist in cell biology, and his team at Salford University.
Jonnie with his A Place In The Sun co-presenter Jasmine Harman
By modifying doxycycline, the team have made it five times more powerful at targeting metastatic cancer cells while still remaining non-toxic to healty cells. Lab studies have shown that doxy-myr targets the process of cellular energy production – ‘in other words, cutting off the fuel supply’, says Professor Lisanti.
‘Most cancer patients don’t die from the primary tumour which is what current therapies are designed for. They die from the recurrence, and finding a way to target that has proven to be a big stumbling block. But now we know that we can use ordinary antibiotics to deplete or control the cancer stem cell population.’
‘It’s not about replacing conventional treatments such as chemotherapy – or doing anything without consulting your doctor – it’s about having a multi-faceted approach to treating cancer,’ explains Dr Kuhan.
‘Some medicines may make tumour cells easier to destroy by stopping them from efficiently using glucose, fats and amino acids as fuel sources,’ he adds. ‘Others reduce inflammation, which can be a trigger for disease and tumour progression.’
These drugs can also help to block the ability of cancer cells to create their own blood vessels, encouraging cell death and interfering with cancer cell signalling.
The theory is this weakens cancer stem cells, which have the capacity to divide and grow endlessly, by suppressing the ability of these cells to make new mitochondria (the tiny powerhouses that help create new cells).
However, the use of repurposed drugs for cancer is controversial.
Professor Thomas says that while there is some evidence that taking aspirin is linked to a reduced breast and bowel cancer recurrence, the results of a large study, involving 11,000 people in the UK, Ireland and India, which will show whether this would be practical or desirable, have not been published yet.
And while there is evidence that people with type 2 diabetes have a lower cancer risk if taking metformin, there’s no evidence that the drug can benefit those without diabetes, he adds.
Likewise, while a few studies link statin use with a reduced risk of prostate cancer relapse, none has shown it could help someone with ongoing disease, says Professor Thomas.
‘Drugs are best used for their intended use,’ he warns. ‘I would not encourage my patients to take an antibiotic such as doxycycline, which can disrupt the microbiome [the colony of microbes in our gut], weakening the immune system and making the body more vulnerable to cancer spreading.’
Dr Kuhan stresses that doxycycline is not prescribed ‘willy-nilly’ at Care Oncology.
‘When thought to be relevant, we use doxycycline in a pulsed fashion (a month on, month off) due to its qualities in killing cancer stem cells,’ he says.
One of the early advocates for this type of holistic approach is Jane McLelland, whose book, How to Starve Cancer, describes how, as a stage-four cancer patient, she devised her own regimen to ‘starve’ her cancer cells.
Jane, 59, had been diagnosed with an aggressive form of cervical cancer at the age of 35, and in 2004 she was told it had spread to her lungs, with a one-in-20 chance of survival.
After trawling through the latest scientific studies, the former physiotherapist created her own programme, cutting out sugar and high-carbohydrate foods, taking supplements and a cocktail of drugs licensed for other conditions that appeared to block cancer cells’ ‘feeding pathways’.
She persuaded her oncologist to prescribe the drugs – which included metformin, statins and aspirin. She also believes in the use of supplements, particularly quercetin, curcumin and fish oils (to fight inflammation) plus green tea, as well as vitamin D and (the more controversial) intravenous vitamin C and hyperbaric oxygen therapy – both of which Jonnie tried. ‘I feel great after both,’ he said in a podcast interview with her recorded just before Christmas.
The theory is that vitamin C releases hydrogen peroxide that kills the cancer, while proponents of hyperbaric oxygen therapy claim a boost in oxygen levels in the tissues improves the effectiveness of other therapies.
Jane had been ‘mentoring’ Jonnie after meeting him just over a year ago in January 2023 – he’d read her book and followed her on X (previously Twitter), and she then contacted him.
At that point he was very unwell – in her podcast interview with him she said: ‘I bet you thought that last Christmas you would never be here at this point’.
Jonnie replied: ‘If I just listened to the prognosis I am perennially given I would be curled up in a ball and crying myself to death.’
But instead, as he told the Mail, taking the holistic approach on top of the conventional medicine he was also having gave him ‘a feeling of control – and hope’. He added: ‘I feel like I am part of the fight.’