Cancer is not a new disease. Evidence of it appears in the skeletons of prehistoric man, and Galen, the prominent Greek physician of the 2nd century AD, observed that ‘melancholic’ women appeared to be especially susceptible to cancer of the breast, demonstrating an early recognition of the relationship between mind and body, as well as confirming the long history of cancer which today affects one in eight women.
Most cells in the body are designed to die after they have achieved their cellular duties, a natural process known as apoptosis. Cancer cells do not follow this law of nature. Cancer cells are immortal, they do not die, they just keep dividing and dividing until their host organism falls off the perch. The DNA or genetic recipe in cancer cells has become mutated or damaged so that the apoptosis message is not encoded into the dividing cells.
Cancer generally takes years to develop, a gradual progression rather than a spontaneous formation of a tumour. Viewing cancer as a chronic (long term) disease encourages you to make appropriate changes such as decreasing stress, improving diet and losing weight all of which reduce one’s risk of developing many of the different cancers.
Cancer accounts for thirty per cent of deaths in Australia. One in every four women and one in every three men in Australia will be diagnosed with cancer by the time they reach 75 years of age. Although cancer is becoming more commonplace, with over 100,000 new diagnoses each year, the good news is that as knowledge about cancer is increasing exponentially, there is earlier detection and treatments are proving more successful and less injurious to the rest of one’s health. Being diagnosed with cancer is no longer the death sentence it used to be, but it’s still not a diagnosis anyone wants.
There are over 100 different kinds of cancer, the most common cancers in Australia are lung, colon, breast, prostate, melanoma and stomach.
Cancers are named according to the tissue in which they originate;
- Carcinoma – 80 to 90 per cent of all cancers are this type. It develops from epithelial tissue which is the tissue that covers and lines the body, so this can affect the bowel, the skin, lungs and the ducts of breast tissue.
- Leukaemia is a blood cancer that develops from bone marrow.
- Lymphoma develops from lymph tissue.
- Sarcoma develops in connective tissue including muscle and bone.
- Cancer cells commonly grow into a mass known as a tumour. Some cells from the tumour may disseminate (metastasize) and colonise other parts of the body, ultimately interfering with the functioning of other tissues and organs. The tumour is capable of creating its own blood supply (known as angiogenesis).
What Causes it?
- Obesity. More often viewed as associated with heart disease and diabetes (which it is) or an aesthetic issue (in our culture it is), being overweight is also a significant risk factor for cancer. A number of mechanisms explain the link between being overweight and getting cancer. For starters, fat, particularly belly (visceral) fat, does not just create difficulty squeezing into skinny jeans, it is metabolically active in a bad way, sending out substances that are inflammatory. Inflammation has been found to be a risk factor for cancer, possibly by switching on the gene (mentioned above). Additionally, being overweight also increases the secretion of the hormone insulin. Insulin is a growth factor, an agent that increases cell growth, which is exactly what we don’t want with cancer cells that are already growing out of control. Finally, increased body fat increases sex hormones, linked with certain cancers including breast and prostate. All in all, losing weight is an excellent cancer prevention strategy.
- Genetics. Heredity is the cause of only 5-10 per cent of cancers. The influence of lifestyle and diet is much greater. A good example of this is the story of Japanese migrants to Hawaii. Japanese living in Japan have a relatively low rate of breast and colon cancer, however, within one generation, Japanese that move to Hawaii developed the same risk of these cancers as their American compatriots, marking an unhealthy transition from sushi and soy to burgers and fries.
The genes we inherit from our mother and father in the form of DNA encodes our potential on many levels. However, not every gene is expressed or turned on. Even if you inherit a gene for a particular cancer, it doesn’t mean you will necessarily get that cancer. Enter the new science of epigenetics that states that a gene needs first to be turned on before it can be expressed. Poor lifestyle and diet choices turn that switch. Many of the foods and remedies mentioned below appear to work by stopping the expression of that gene.
- Lowered immunity. The formation of cancer cells is a moment-to-moment occurrence in the body, but a healthy immune system, with adequate antioxidants, enzymes and nutrients, is more likely to disarm them. If the immune system is compromised, for instance by an ongoing infection or chronic stress, it is less likely to rise to the challenge of eliminating errant cancer cells. Certain drugs (for example, cortisone) can also jeopardise your immune response, creating a weaker defence against cancer cells. Research has shown a link between viruses and some cancers. For example, the HIV virus often precedes Kaposi’s sarcoma. The same seems to be true for the Hepatitis B virus and liver cancer, and the papilloma virus (genital warts) predisposes women to cervical cancer.
- Stress. Many people with cancer can recall an episode of great stress or shock, that preceded their diagnosis, sometimes by many years. The stress could have been a bankruptcy, the death of a relative, spouse or close friend, or a relationship break-up. The science of psychoneuroimmunology (psycho–mind; neuro–nervous and endocrine systems; immunology–immune system) verifies the link between our emotions, nervous system and immune system. Non-psychological stressors also impact on the body, including shift work, poor sleep, infections, accidents and pain. Stress, acute or chronic, takes its toll on the immune system, leaving you more vulnerable to cancer.
- Excess alcohol. Alcohol itself is carcinogenic. Additionally, alcohol increases the activity of enzymes that convert pre-carcinogens into carcinogens. And finally, heavy drinkers often have a poor diet, deficient in protective nutrients found in vegetables and fruit.
- Smoking. There is a significant correlation between smoking cigarettes and many kinds of cancer, particularly lung cancer.
- Inflammation. Inflammation is the new black with regard to being seen as a cause or promoter of disease and is now thought to be one of the triggers for cancer.
- Excess sun exposure, and exposure to other forms of radiation.
- Toxins. Exposure to toxins from within the body (such as viruses) and the environment (such as pollution, heavy metals), and even food (such as processed meats).
- Diabetes. With diabetes there is an increase in blood sugar and insulin levels, which can translate as food for the cancer cells means fuel for them to grow. (see below)
Steiner’s Three Stages of Cancer
Rudolf Steiner (1861–1925), the Austrian philosopher and founder of anthroposophy (spiritual beliefs about education, agriculture and health), believed that there are three stages of cancer. The first stage may be initiated by a physical, psychic or psychological shock; after which the person becomes fatigued or an insomniac. The second stage is the appearance of the tumour itself, which may or may not be diagnosed then. The third stage is the metastases, whereby the cancer travels to other parts of the body and infiltrates tissues and organs.
Although Steiner’s second and third stages coincide with the conventional medical model, his stage one description is interesting. It implies that something happens before the appearance of the cancer. If there was some way we could identify stage one, this would be the very best time to start treatment, before stages two and three progress. Unfortunately, the symptoms of fatigue, malaise and sleep problems are vague, all too common, and too easy to attribute to other causes. Nevertheless, we should take notice of the messages our bodies give. If you feel tired, you should rest, if you have undergone a great shock or sadness, don’t underestimate its effect on your body and do what you can to nourish your spirit.
What To Do
- Avoid all refined sugar as cancer cells are addicted to sugar. It’s not that normal cells don’t love glucose (the major blood sugar) as fuel, but cancer cells can’t live without it. Other body cells (except nerve and brain cells) are happy enough to get their energy from other sources, predominantly fatty acids. A diet that reduces sugar and insulin in the body will go far towards the goals of reducing fuel and growth factors for cancer cells.
- Reduce alcohol. More than a glass of alcohol a day increases your risk of cancer.
- Reduce red meat. Eating more than 500g of red meat weekly increases your risk of cancer.
- Avoid processed meats. Studies have shown a link between eating deli or processed meats and cancer so it is advisable to cut down on bacon, devon, ham, salami, prosciutto, bacon, and sausages.
- Avoid charred or overcooked meat as the charring creates two carcinogens: polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and heterocyclic amines (HCAs)
- Reduce animal fats. People who have a high animal fat intake have higher death rates from cancer of the colon, breast and prostate than populations with a low-fat consumption. The type of fat is also important. One study showed a 200 per cent increase in breast cancer when beef and pork were consumed five or six times per week. Animal fat (except fish) appears to be more of a risk than plant oils. The fat found in fish, avocado, nuts and seeds is protective, so you don’t need to scrimp on these fats.
- Reduce calories. Frugal gourmands live longer. Those who consistently undereat (not starve) are less likely to have cancer.
- Increase your fibre intake. Fibre is not a nutrient as it is not absorbed across the intestinal tract nor does it provide us with calories, vitamins, etc. Nevertheless, fibre plays a vital role in our health, particularly in the prevention of cancer. Fibre helps the stool move through the colon, decreasing the transit time from mouth to anus. This decreases the time when carcinogenic substances are in contact with the bowel wall, being absorbed into the bloodstream or affecting the bowel wall itself. Although we don’t digest fibre, various beneficial bacteria living within the colon do enjoy snacking on fibre, creating beneficial substances in the process. Increased dietary fibre also lowers circulating oestrogen levels, a risk factor for breast cancer. The by-products of their feast include substances including butyric acid which has an anticancer effect. Additionally, these by-products change the pH of the bowel environment, pushing it in an anticancer direction. There are many types of fibre. Don’t just shake a handful of bran over your Coco Pops; eat food that has its original fibre intact, such as legumes, whole grains (oats, brown rice, quinoa, ) vegetables and fruit including where possible the peel and pips.
- Given the previous few recommendations, eating a plant-based diet is sounding like a good move.
- Raw food. Eat at least half your vegetables and most of your fruit raw. All minerals, enzymes and vitamins are more abundant in raw food. Additionally, raw food has an abundance of the elusive ‘life force’. This naturopathic concept imbues certain foods with subtle vibrational or energistic, health-giving qualities. For instance, alfalfa sprouts have more life force than a lamington, an apple picked and eaten from the tree has more life force than a frozen reheated apple pie. Some foods such as legumes and grains, however, need a certain amount of cooking before they are digestible.
- Juicing is a clever way of getting a large amount of vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients in one glass from raw vegetables and fruit. The three negatives with juicing is losing out on the fibre, pure fruit juice may be too high in sugar, and cleaning the juicer. One or two juices daily are recommended. Following are a couple of classic juices, but after a while, you will develop your own favourites.
- Green juice: To a base of green apples add a variety of kale, parsley, celery, beetroot leaves, cucumber, and cabbage.
- Red juice: To a base of carrots add a variety of beetroot, ginger, and red cabbage. Drink juice at mealtimes to prevent a rapid increase in blood sugar and insulin levels.
- Increase alkalising foods in the diet. Cancer cells prefer a more acidic environment than normal cells. In fact, cancer cells, as a consequence of their diet of sugar only, create this acidic milieu themselves. pH is a measure of acid/base (alkali); Normal pH around cells is 7.4, whereas the pH around cancer cells is between 6.7-7.1. In regards to proper pH balance, the dietary goal is quite simple – make sure that you have a higher intake of alkaline-producing foods than acid-producing foods. Basically, an alkaline diet is one rich in vegetables and fruit, while avoiding an excess of grains, meat, eggs and dairy. There is a difference between between acidic foods and acid-forming foods. For example, while foods like lemons and citrus fruits may taste acidic they actually have an alkalising effect on the body. What determines the pH nature of the food in the body is the metabolic end products when it is digested (sometimes called ‘metabolic ash’). For example, the citric acid in citrus fruit is metabolised in the body to its alkaline form (citrate) and may even be converted to bicarbonate – also alkaline. It’s important to remember that, like everything in life, it’s about balance. We need to eat some acid-forming foods too. See a list of acid/alkaline foods (need permission). One of the appendices has a list. Have changed this to avoid the permission problem
- Fasting can be powerful medicine. A supervised water fast of seven days or more may prove helpful. As cancer cells are obligatory glucose users, the lack of food on a fast will hopefully stop cancer cells from multiplying. After fasting for two days, your body’s biochemistry changes whereby our cells, in particular the brain and nervous tissue, are able to accept some fatty acids from stored fat, instead of relying totally on glucose. Very little glucose in the body leaves the cancer cells to starve. Another reason why fasting is recommended is that it frees the energy formerly used in digestion, making more of it available to our immune system. A true fast can be deeply meditative and many people fast for spiritual reasons. Do not fast if you have lost a lot of weight, are pregnant or have kidney disease. Do not fast on your own without qualified supervision. It is vital to rest during a fast of this kind. There are centres that specialise in therapeutic fasting.
Foods that have been shown to prevent cancer
Anti-cancer ‘super’ foods
The best advice is to increase fresh vegetables and fruit in your diet, rather than devoting your diet to ‘anti-cancer’ foods. However, the following foods have been shown to contain substances that reduce your risk of cancer. Include a range of them in your weekly diet. –
- Brassica family broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, Chinese cabbage, collards, horseradish, kale, kohlrabi, mustard, radish, swede, turnip and watercress contain cancer-preventing substances called indoles and isothiocyanates, which stimulate co-enzyme glutathione to bind and neutralise carcinogens. Indoles appear to have an oestrogen-blocking effect similar to Tamoxifen, the drug often given to prevent the recurrence of breast cancer. –
- Allium family includes garlic, onion, leeks and other members of the allium (lily) family that contain concentrated sulphur compounds that activate glutathione, the detoxifying co-enzyme. Shown to destroy cancer cells without damaging healthy cells. There have been over 30 anti-cancer properties identified in this delicious and odiferous group. –
- Resveratrol is an excellent antioxidant for reducing the effects of carcinogens. It is mainly found in grapes, blueberries, cranberries and rhubarb. Red and purple grapes, peanuts with skins on and pistachios Resveratrol appears to be able to switch on apoptosis (see above) – Beetroot
- Brazil nuts are a good source of selenium. Selenium is needed by super antioxidants glutathione peroxidase. Selenium may help reduce angiogenesis. Angiogenesis is where the tumour creates its own system of blood vessels, that provide nutrients for the cancer to further grow. – Fermented foods such as miso, yoghurt, sauerkraut, and pickles. –
- Seaweed contains fucoidan, which Japanese studies have shown to be protective against cancer. –
- Soy. A diet high in phytoestrogens appears to prevent cancers that are which may be influenced by oestrogen such as breast, uterine and ovarian cancer. There is an extremely low incidence of breast cancer in Japan, where the diet is high in traditional soy foods.soya beans. There is a lot of controversy about whether soy does indeed help prevent cancer. While the jury is still out, it may be best to include traditionally consumed soy products (such as tempeh, small amounts of tofu, miso and natto) rather than drinking large amounts of soy milk and soy protein powders (not traditional foods). –
- Tomatoes contain lycopene (as do guavas, rosehips, watermelon, papaya and pink grapefruit) a carotenoid. Heating increases the presence of an antioxidant, which has proved to be beneficial in the prevention of prostate cancer. The only catch is the tomatoes need to be cooked.
- Mushrooms include reishi, shiitake, maitake and coriolus, cordyceps, field mushrooms, porio cocos. These contain beta-glucan polysaccharides, which support immune function and have an antitumour action. –
- Turmeric is well known for its anti-inflammatory abilities. Curcumin, a compound found in this yellow spice is found to influence apoptosis as well as reduce inflammation, a possible trigger for cancer. –
- Green tea contains the EGCG (epigallocatechin gallate) an antioxidant found to be useful in reducing the risk of heart disease, neurodegenerative disease as well as cancer.
A diagnosis of cancer strikes fear and desperation into patients, their friends and family. Unfortunately, desperation can result in seeking desperate measures, including being at the mercy of peddlers of hope who are more interested in financial gain than true healing. This is unfortunately the case in the world of natural therapies too. My advice is to be deeply suspicious of anyone offering a cure. However, natural therapies have much to offer the person dealing with cancer. Especially as a preventative measure, but also to support the body during and after conventional treatments of surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy and to protect against future recurrence of cancer.
Vitamins and Minerals
When the role of antioxidants and their protective role against cancer first gained prominence, many people starting taking mega doses of supplemental antioxidants. However, years down the track, it now appears that large amounts of single nutrients do not help, in fact may be detrimental. The best advice is to focus on eating a good diet with a wide range of fresh unprocessed food. The following antioxidant nutrients have shown to be helpful in the prevention of cancer, take in moderation, and where possible increase the foods containing that nutrient in preference to a supplement.
A, beta carotene, C, D, E, Coenzyme Q10, Selenium, Zinc
Thousands of herbs have anticancer properties, whether it by virtue of containing antioxidants, improving immunity or helping the body deal with stress. Below are a few that tick some or all of these boxes.
- Korean ginseng, Siberian ginseng, Turmeric, rosemary, St. Mary’s thistle, thuja, Echinacea, andrographis, bilberry, chamomile, dong quai, feverfew, garlic, goldenseal, withania, rhodiola, schizandra
- On first receiving a cancer diagnosis, most people go into a state of understandable shock. Although you may feel pressured to make hasty decisions about treatment options, try to keep a steady head, and gather as much information as you can, even a second opinion. It is easy to be overwhelmed by all that is happening. Bad news makes us hard of hearing. You do not remember everything said in a consultation at the best of times Take notes, ask questions and if possible bring along a (calm) friend or relative with you to consultations, so you don’t get forget things.
- Exercise increases oxygen in the body. Try gentle exercise such as walking, swimming or yoga; anything that promotes good breathing. Cancer cells are predominantly anaerobic, meaning they don’t thrive on oxygen, like normal cells. Gentle exercise also supports the immune system.
- Meditation, positive thinking deep relaxation or prayer stills the body, allowing the immune system to grow stronger. Meditation also reduces anxiety, reducing the inhibitory effect that the stress hormone, cortisol, which has on the immune system. Adrenaline, another stress hormone, is thought to increase free radical production. Anything that reduces stress is useful so consider relaxation tapes, meditation courses, yoga (which emphasises meditation), chanting, or praying. Try to include whatever practice you decide to follow every day. A particular type of meditation, creative visualisation, is an excellent way of targeting cancer cells. Some people visualise their white blood cells as soldiers in an army, destroying any and all cancer cells. Others visualise the tumour slowly shrinking and shrinking until nothing is left. Create your own scenarios.
- Counselling and/or support groups may prove invaluable.
- Give up smoking.
- It is not uncommon to hear people say that they are grateful for the challenges that cancer has brought them. In hindsight, being diagnosed and dealing with cancer has been a catalyst in their lives, changing attitudes, relationships and priorities. If it means leaving the job you have endured for the last 12 years, do it. If it means sitting on top of a mountain, do it. If it means leaving an unhappy relationship, do it.
At a glance
- Increase fresh fruit and vegetables, and whole grains as these whole foods contain substances that protect against cancer
- Foods that have proven anti-cancer properties include those from the Allium family (onions, garlic, leeks), Brassica family (broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower) berries,
- Avoid deli meats as they contain cancer-containing substances
- Avoid sugar and added sugar in your diet.
- Eat less animal protein (red meat, chicken) and more plant-based protein (legumes, nuts and seeds)
- Avoid or reduce alcohol
- Focus more on your diet than supplements, however, the following in moderate doses may be helpful. Vitamin C, D, E, A, zinc, selenium, Co Q10
- Herbal remedies that improve your ability to deal with stress (adaptogens) and enhance immunity (colds and flu) are recommended. Siberian ginseng, Withania, Rhodiola, Echinacea,
- Learning ways to minimise and handle stress is a major factor in reducing your risk of cancer
- Don’t smoke
- Lose weight if you are carrying excess kilos