What a terrifying word. And with good reason.
In 2015, the National Institutes of Health estimate that 1.6 million new diagnoses of cancer will be made in the U.S. 1.6 million. That’s about 0.5% of the U.S. population. I get it doesn’t seem like a large percentage of people. And it may not be to you, but let’s dig a bit deeper into the stats before deciding it’s not something to worry about.
Our starting point is 1.6 million new cancer diagnoses expected in the U.S. this year. Now consider that just under 40% of the total population will be diagnosed with cancer at some point in their lives. That means that of you and four friends, two of you will hear the words, “You have cancer” sometime before you die (perhaps you or they already have?). As well, once a person has cancer, there is a 36% chance that it will be the cause of death.
Now, I’m not trying to be a fear-monger about cancer because I get that people are beating cancer every day. In fact, my mom is a breast cancer survivor and I am thankful everyday for her life. At the same time, I am mindful that it must have been scary for her on the day that she was told that she had cancer.
The thing that makes cancer so frightening is that it can be caused by any number of factors and, once a person has it, we can’t be absolutely sure that our currently available treatments will cure it. Yet with as little as we seem to know about cancer, there is a whole lot we do know… about how it starts, how it progresses and what we can do every day to reduce our risk of ever being given that horrible diagnosis.
In honor of all of those who have fought or are currently fighting for their lives, in memory of our loved ones who succumbed to the relentless nature of this terrible disease, and in support of all the people who treasure us and want us to be around for a long time, let’s talk about what we can do every day to fight cancer.
But first, a little biology (and I mean a “little” as I am not an oncologist by any stretch of the imagination!)…
What is cancer?
Cancer is a disorder of cell growth and regulation in which abnormal cells, which serve no purpose, replicate at higher than normal rates.
If that definition seems somewhat vague, it’s because it is. You see, cancer isn’t one disease; it is many diseases that all share the common characteristic of cells that refuse to follow the normal regulatory mechanisms of growth and reproduction. Because of this, we don’t actually know how many types of cancer there are, and depending on who you ask, you may be told there are 100 different types of cancer or 200 or somewhere in between.
What causes cancer?
Well, isn’t that the million dollar question! The fact is that lots of things can cause the initiation and progression of cancer. That group of “things” are called carcinogens, and they work by causing DNA mutations or epigenetic changes that ultimately change the way a cell grows, behaves and dies.
The very beginning of cancer is called initiation and it occurs when cells are exposed to a carcinogen that changes the genetic or epigenetic structure of one or more cells. Once these changes are in place, the cell becomes autonomous and no longer responds to the normal physiological signals for growth and replication. The abnormal cell can now reproduce at an uncontrolled rate by ignoring outside signals, generating its own growth hormone, and destroying its internal mechanisms that would cause it to kill itself for going off the rails. It is also important to note that the mutated cells replicate exactly, meaning that the genetic / epigenetic changes propagate to every child cell.
This potentially unlimited reproduction is called promotion and may lead to the development of a tumor. I say “may lead to” because the rate of reproduction depends on lots of factors including the person’s age, gender, nutritional status, immune system function and overall health. As well, cancer promoters must be present. Promoters are agents not involved in the initiation of cancer, but that help it progress once it is present.
(As a side note, genetic and epigenetic changes happen regularly. Some have no impact whatsoever on the cell’s function; some will have a small negative impact; and some will change the growth and development of the cell causing it to be designated as cancer. As well, multiple genetic changes may need to occur within a cell before it becomes cancerous.)
Who will get cancer?
Because cancer is marked by a genetic mutation or epigenetic change that causes the cell to behave abnormally, everyone will have cancerous cells in her/his body at some point in her/his life. However, not everyone will end up with a tumor.
Again, we don’t know exactly why some people’s few cancerous cells replicate to the point of tumor development because there are so many factors involved in initiation and promotion. However, we do know that a person might develop cancer as a result of:
- Exposure to a large number of carcinogens (i.e., initiators), so a larger number of cells are changing from regular cells to cancerous cells, and/or
- Exposure to a large number of promoters, which means any cancerous cells are more likely to replicate.
Although this is not a complete list, some known initiators and promoters include:
- Advanced age
- Gender (estrogen is a known cancer promoter, although men are more likely to be diagnosed with and die from cancer)
- Compromised immune system (because a strong immune system can kill cells that it detects to be abnormal)
- Genetic predisposition (there are at least 14 known genes that increase a person’s risk of cancer development, although it is important to note that a predisposition means an increased risk and not a guaranteed diagnosis)
- Under oxygenation of tissue (because respiration of oxygen is how cells normally generate energy, and cancerous cells are known to ferment glucose for energy)
- High intake of refined carbohydrates (as mentioned, cancer cells use glucose exclusively for energy as opposed to normal cells that can also use fat) and processed foods
- Environmental toxins like cigarette smoke, chemicals, and heavy metals
- Pathogenic microorganisms like bad bacteria and viruses
- Radiation and electromagnetic fields (like from cell phones)
- Emotional stress
What can we do?
I know it sounds like doom and gloom because we are surrounded by initiators and promoters. However, it’s not because there are many things that we can do in order to reduce our risk of developing cancer cells and increase our bodies’ ability to take care of them when they form, rather than promoting their continued development.
Here are my top 4 suggestions for reducing your cancer risk…
1. Use your FORK to consume health promoting foods.
I’ve already given you my top 5 nutrition tips, and those apply in your fight against cancer as well. To get even more specific:
- Eat organic, grass-fed animal products, including protein and dairy.
- Choose organic vegetables, fruits, grains and legumes, whenever possible.
- Increase your intake of omega-3 fatty acids from fish, grass-fed animal products, flaxseeds, chia seeds and walnuts.
- Increase your intake of cancer fighting foods like the onion family (ex: leeks, garlic, scallions), cruciferous veggies (ex: cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, kale), berries and tomatoes.
- Drink green tea every day, while keeping an eye on how the caffeine might impact you.
- Reduce your intake of refined carbohydrates, including white flour products and sugar (in all forms, including beverages).
- Eliminate as many food chemicals as possible, including artificial flavors, colors and sweeteners.
- Reduce the use of food preparation techniques that have been shown to increase cancer risk, including smoking, salting and pickling, as well as high-temperature cooking of meat.
2. Use your FEET to walk away from harmful chemicals.
- Remove your dry-cleaned clothes from the plastic bag to let them air out.
- Avoid pesticides, insecticides and herbicides (this is the point above about buying organic).
- Use more natural cleaning products around your house and on your body, especially avoiding triclosan and triclocarban.
- Switch to a natural deodorant so as not to exposure your skin to the aluminum in most antiperspirants.
- Use more natural skin care products and cosmetics so as to avoid parabens, phthalates and oxybenzone, among others. (Check out the EWG’s website Skin Deep for more details.)
- Store food and beverages in glass, metal or ceramic containers, rather than plastic… even BPA-free plastic, as we don’t know what is in it that can also leach into food and drink.
- Never microwave food in plastic or Styrofoam containers.
3. Use your FEET to walk toward health.
Physical activity can reduce inflammation, help maintain hormonal balance, lower stress, increase oxygen intake and help maintain a healthy weight, all of which can reduce your cancer risk. The best part is that it doesn’t have to be a lot of exercise. Taking a 30 minute walk, six days per week is sufficient to help keep your cells functioning normally.
As well, getting outside into nature, fresh air and sunshine has been shown to have health benefits. For sure, we know that exposure to daylight helps improve mood and enables the body to create vitamin D, which is needed throughout the body. But it seems that getting outside has other positive effects as well, such as improving concentration and healing ability.
4. Use your FAITH to free your mind.
More and more research is pointing to the connection between the mind and the body as a necessary component of health and healing. And it’s not just speculation. Science has shown that what we think changes the way our body functions, even down to a cellular level.
For example, accepting yourself as you are has been shown to increase immune cell production. Resolving past emotional traumas that may have left you feeling helpless results in improved immune system activity, especially in white blood cells and NK cells, and decreased release of the stress hormones, like cortisol. Finally, learning to relax and center yourself through practices such as meditation, yoga, saying the rosary, tai chi or qigong can also help strengthen the immune system, reduce biological markers of inflammation, and better regulate blood sugar levels.
By using the power of your mind and incorporating a relaxation practice, you can improve your body’s function and tap into its innate ability to heal.
A final note:
I know that cancer is an incredibly complex disease, and I wouldn’t begin to presume that I know everything that contributes to its initiation or progression. This post is not intended to induce guilt or pass judgment on anyone who has ever been touched by cancer and its horrible physical, mental and emotional effects.
My goal with this post is to provide you with information that you can use to be as vibrant and healthy as possible, so that you can continue to live your amazing life. You have choices in every aspect of your life that can reduce your risk of contracting cancer and help your body fight should you ever receive the diagnosis.
As always, if you have cancer, please work with your healthcare providers to ensure all of your choices are suitable for your situation. If you don’t have a dietitian or nutritionist on your healthcare team, please contact me and let’s discuss how I can help you.
— Cancer Research UK. What is cancer? In About Cancer. Accessed October 28, 2015.
— Harvard Medical School. A prescription for better health: go alfresco. In Harvard Health Publications. July 1, 2010. Accessed on October 28, 2015.
— Kumar V, Abbas AK, Aster JC. Robbins Basic Pathology. 9th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2013.
— National Institutes of Health (US). SEER Stat Fact Sheets: All Cancer Sites. In Statistical Summaries. Accessed October 28, 2015.
— National Institutes of Health (US). What is cancer? In About Cancer. Accessed October 28, 2015.
— Natural Horizons Wellness Centers. Cancer. In Prevention & Wellness. Accessed on October 28, 2015.
— Nelms M, Sucher KP, Lacey K, Roth SL. Nutrition Therapy & Pathophysiology. 2nd ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning; 2011.
— Servan-Schreiber D. Anticancer: A New Way of Life. New York, NY: Viking; 2009.
— Sircus M. Oxygen and Cancer. March 25, 2010. Accessed on October 28, 2015.