“You have cancer” are perhaps the most frightening words I ever speak and the words you fear most from your doctor. Cancer is the second leading cause of death in the US and one of the leading causes around the world. According to the World Health Organization, in 2008 about 13% of deaths worldwide were due to cancer while in the US about 500,000 deaths per year are due to cancer
A 2005 report from the Centers for Disease Control report the death rate from cancer has only declined by 5% since 1950. While the death rates from heart disease, stroke and infections have dropped markedly, the death rate from cancer has hardly dropped at all. In 1971 President Nixon declared the “war on cancer”. Forty years and billions of dollars later, these statistics show the war is not going very well.
Cause of Cancer
The runaway growth of abnormal cells called cancer depends on a series of events that allow a normal cell to go rogue, multiply and spread. The internal “terrain” of the body either encourages or discourages cancer growth. Genetic and cellular specifics of cancer are such that each person really has their own unique cancer with slightly different characteristics at a molecular level.
The phases of cancer development start with the initiation of the abnormal cells, or the “turning on the switch” for abnormal cell growth. Initiation is triggered by increases in DNA damage and decreases in DNA repair. Epigenetic factors influence how DNA switches are turned on or off and can help or hinder cancer initiation and growth. Changes in how cells replicate and communicate with one another encourage cancer growth. Impaired immune system oversight and increases in hormonal and inflammatory chemicals further encourage cancer.
Exposure to environmental cancer causing agents, or carcinogens, is the traditional understanding of how cancer initiation begins. Toxic chemicals, radiation, and chronic infections are linked to cancer. Cancer prevention has centered on avoiding chemical carcinogens, cigarette smoking, charred meats, excess sunshine, etc.
In recent years the discovery of genetic mutations such as the breast cancer susceptibility 1 and 2 genes (BRCA1, 2) which code for proteins that repair DNA and suppress cancer, has led to the field of cancer genetics. Learning about genetic mutations that make one more prone to cancer can lead to more aggressive prevention strategies. For example, Angelina Jolie apparently has the BRCA1, 2 mutations and recently announced having double mastectomies to lower her risk of ever developing breast cancer.
Lower Your Risk
Carcinogens and gene mutations alone don’t account for most of the risk for cancer. Why is it one person will develop cancer while another does not despite being exposed to the same carcinogen? Studies in twins show that genetics alone only account for a minor increase in cancer while environmental factors are the major influence. You can’t change your genes, and you can only limit but not totally avoid exposure to carcinogens, so what’s left to help you prevent cancer
There are numerous tests that can be done to detect cancer early. Traditional screening includes testing such as a Pap smear, mammogram, or colonoscopy. Other tests look for specific markers for cancer, such as prostate-specific antigen (PSA) associated with prostate cancer.
But we can also do tests that analyze the conditions of the body that will increase the risk of cancer developing, long before cancer has started. This is the real goal of cancer prevention. Change the terrain that encourages cancer to grow and you can markedly lower your risk of cancer.
Functional medicine addresses the “root cause” of disease and with cancer there are some fundamental conditions in the body that will encourage cancer growth. Unstable genetic replication and altered epigenetic switches that control “on-off” commands for cancer, excess insulin and chronic inflammation, lack of oxygen and build-up of oxidative stressors are all drivers of cancer.
Testing exists to evaluate insulin sensitivity, detoxification pathways, gut and immune function, inflammation, autoimmune and infectious states, hormone pathways, genetic control switches, and micronutrient deficiencies. All these factors are known players in the control of cancer and they can all be examined and modified.
The unique physiologic alterations we each have will increase or decrease our risk for cancer. While the previously mentioned testing can help us identify specific weaknesses in our cancer defenses, there are numerous studies that show some simple steps now can achieve strong cancer protective effects.
Start with diet. Eat a healthy diet. Include 8-10 servings per day of mostly raw, preferably organic fruits and vegetables. Vegan, or at least low red meat containing diets are associated with marked reductions in both cancer and heart disease. Avoid sugar and high-glycemic foods that drive insulin resistance. Stay away from artificial food additives, fried-foods and inflammatory artificial fats such as “trans-fats” and hydrogenated oils.
Exercise. Study after study shows moderate daily exercise slashes the risk of cancer. And watch your weight. According to the American Cancer Society, 1 in 5 cancers is caused by excess weight. Especially bad is weight around the belly. Don’t smoke and don’t be around second-hand smoke. Moderate alcohol intake to no more than a few daily drinks.
A customized program should be developed for everyone to help lower his or her risk of cancer. Start with a thorough evaluation focusing on the root causes that lead to altered physiology and increased cancer risk. Then follow a program of lifestyle behaviors and targeted supplements or medications that will eliminate cancer-promoting terrain and lower your risk for cancer.
Scott Rollins, MD, is Board Certified with the American Board of Family Practice and the American Board of Anti-Aging and Regenerative Medicine. He specializes in bioidentical hormone replacement for men and women, thyroid and adrenal disorders, fibromyalgia and other complex medical conditions. He is founder and medical director of the Integrative Medicine Center of Western Colorado (www.imcwc.com) and Bellezza Laser Aesthetics (www.bellezzalaser.com). Call (970) 245-6911 for an appointment or more information.