In my previous article, I introduced the first step of the Moncton Naturopathic Medical Clinic’s dual approach to integrative oncology care. I described how naturopathic and conventional cancer treatments can work side-by-side to not only increase the effectiveness of conventional cancer care (chemotherapy, radiation, surgery), but also to reduce any side effects of these therapies (please click here to review this article).
In today’s article, I will discuss the second step: how to prevent the re-occurrence of cancer by targeting five key pathways in the body.
This proactive approach is especially designed for those diagnosed with cancer. However, the principles can also be applied to anyone interested in cancer prevention.
For those who have battled cancer—or fought alongside a loved one with cancer—simply getting through the fight is success. For those that emerge on the other side as survivors, many experience a mixture of emotions. While happiness and relief are expected, there are many who also feel unprepared and anxious as they move into their new life as a cancer survivor. When they get clearance from the oncologist, survivors are expected to go back to their normal life until the next MRI or CT scan booked months down the road.
During that waiting period they try not to think about the cancer, but despite attempts to distract their minds, it still manages to pop its head up periodically and produce that sinking feeling in the stomach. This can happen when they experience a new body ache, a day of unusual tiredness, or a stubborn mental block. It can also arise if they know someone else in treatment, or when they celebrate the anniversary of their diagnosis. Dr. Lise Alschuler, Naturopathic Doctor (ND), cancer survivor, and author of the 2013 book titled “The definitive guide to thriving after cancer,” describes the feeling of being a cancer survivor with the following analogy: “At times, it can seem that we are dancing on ice, doing our best to avoid falling through, but without a clear sense of where the ice is thin and where the ice will hold us."
The inspiration for this article comes from cancer patients asking me the question of “What do I do now? Is there anything I can do to help prevent the cancer from coming back?”
There is currently close to one million cancer survivors in Canada. By 2020, this number is expected to increase to nearly two million. With the large number of people surviving cancer you would think that there are comprehensive plans designed for these new survivors. However, when the Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council investigated the quality of care for cancer patients during their transition into survivorship, they found substantial deficits and many unmet needs. These deficits further increase the risk of cancer recurrence, which is already higher than the general population during this vulnerable time.
In order to understand more about this important stage of cancer care, I recently completed a course through the Harvard University School of Medicine called “Cancer survivorship: a distinct phase of cancer care.” In this course, they summarized the report from the Institute of Medicine and highlighted the four essential deficits of current survivorship care: 1) lack of prevention of recurrent or new cancers; 2) lack of surveillance for cancer spread or recurrence; 3) lack of intervention for treatment-induced complications; and 4) lack of coordination between oncology specialists and primary care providers to ensure that all of the survivor’s health needs are met.
I would like to propose a health care plan specifically designed to prevent cancer re-occurrence and one that addresses each of these deficits.
Preventing re-occurrence and secondary cancers
To conceptualize this topic, imagine cancer as a dandelion plant growing in a lawn. Picture chemotherapy like a pesticide, surgery being like a lawnmower, and radiation like a torch. All are very effective ways at killing the dandelion, but what happens if the roots of the dandelion remain, or if the dandelion has spread its seeds? This allows the possibility of the dandelion (cancer) to re-occur or for a secondary dandelion to grow in a different part of the lawn (i.e. metastasize in the body). Therefore, a very important part of the cancer care model is to figure out a way to prevent cancer recurrence and secondary cancers. The way to do that is to not only treat the tops of the dandelion (chemotherapy, radiation, or surgery), but to also remove the roots and to clean up the soil so that the dandelion (cancer) has less chance of growing back. In essence, we are getting to the ‘root’ cause of why cancer developed in the first place.
The five primary root causes of cancer are: a weakened immune system, excess inflammation, imbalanced hormones, excess blood sugar levels, and poor digestion/detoxification. Each person is at a different stage of health in each of the above-mentioned categories. Naturopathic Doctors are skilled at creating an individualized treatment plan to correct and support each of the five pathways. Let’s briefly discuss each of these pathways and review why they are important in cancer care.
1. Immune System
This intricate and complex system consists of trillions of specialized immune system cells that are designed to search for, identify, and destroy damaged cells, including cancer cells. It is vitally important to ensure that this system is strong, especially if one is undergoing chemotherapy and radiation treatments, which can severely challenge one’s immunity. The immune system is ultimately going to be the system that is in charge of killing any remaining cancer cells and vacuuming up any cancer seeds. Dr. Neil McKinney ND, author of the 2012 textbook “Naturopathic Oncology”, echoes its importance and describes that taking steps to maintain the immune system during chemo and radiation is the most important part of helping cancer patients.
In Latin, inflammation means “to ignite” or “to set ablaze.” This process can be critically important during times of infection or injury, when the body uses this inflammatory fire to kill microbes. However, prolonged inflammation can create tissue chaos, ultimately resulting in an environment that favors cancer development. Possible triggers of chronic inflammation include a proinflammatory diet pattern, lack of exercise, food sensitivities, abnormal microbes in the digestive tract (i.e. dysbiosis), stress, toxicity, and/or nutrient imbalances.
Hormones are powerful messengers that set the stage for healthy cell development by serving as growth signals for cells. If hormone levels become uncontrolled, this can result in a continuous source of growth signals for certain types of cancer cells. This makes hormonal balance paramount to controlled growth and cancer prevention. Obtaining information through comprehensive hormone testing and gently resetting the body back to normal balance is crucial for preventing cancer recurrence.
4. Excess blood sugar levels
Cancer cells are studded with more than twice the amount of sugar transporters than healthy cells. Therefore, if sugars are elevated in the bloodstream, the cancer cells are able to monopolize the sugar and accelerate their growth. Controlling blood sugar level and reversing pre-diabetes (insulin resistance) through targeted naturopathic treatments, healthy food choices and lifestyle is another very important component to starving any remaining cancer cells.
Our digestion and detoxification pathways are intimately linked. The digestive tract provides the detoxification system with the critical nutrients that it needs in order to rid our body of toxic, cancer causing substances. After the detoxification system neutralizes these toxic substances in the liver, it excretes it into the bowels to be removed from the body. Therefore, you need both systems working together for optimal digestion and detoxification to occur. To further illustrate the importance of detoxification in cancer care, you can imagine cancer as a city rat. The rat thrives in the back alleys eating garbage and leftovers. The more garbage in the alley, the more rats that you will find. Cancer also loves to grow in a dirty environment, and is fueled by the garbage we have accumulated in our bodies over the years from our food and environment. These include toxins (e.g. pesticides, cleaning chemicals, Teflon, etc), heavy metals (mercury from fish and silver dental fillings, lead from ceramics and paints, arsenic from pesticides, etc), and xenoestrogens (i.e. estrogen mimickers from plastics, dioxins, PCBs, BPA, birth control pills, etc). Naturopathic Doctors have access to specialized lab testing to investigate the accumulation of toxins in the body, and are trained in methods to safely remove these chemicals from the body. The goal is to clean up your body like a five-star hotel -- a place that you would rarely see a rat.
Investigating and repairing each of these pathways creates a healthy environment that is inhospitable to cancer growth.
So far I have discussed how to increase cancer survival (step one), and how to prevent its re-occurrence (step two). Stay tuned for part three of this cancer care series in which I will discuss how naturopathic medicine can be used to reverse the lingering side-effects of radiation, chemotherapy, and surgery.
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