It is common sense that preventing disease is always preferable to treating disease, but this is especially true in the case of cancer. Although medical science has continued to make progress in the treatment of cancer, it is still the second most common cause of death in the U.S. Even when treatment is successful, it is often a difficult ordeal that can have lasting negative impacts.
The term Preventative Medicine is usually applied to the use of mammograms, colonoscopies, PAP tests, etc. but this is actually early detection rather than true prevention. Whereas these tests can be valuable and even life saving, what we’re addressing here is an effort to prevent the initiation of cancer.
Cancer involves uncontrolled reproduction of cells. This is thought to occur due to damage to the cell’s DNA. Oncogenes are parts of our DNA that control growth, and if these genes are damaged or mutated, uncontrolled growth can occur. This DNA damage can be caused by environmental factors called mutagens. There can also be defects in DNA repair which can have the same effect. There are also Epigenetic mechanisms which can turn on tumor promoter genes or turn off tumor suppressor genes. DNA adducts are compounds that attach to our genes and can influence their function.
Although viruses have been implicated in the initiation of a number of cancers, (such as HPV in cervical cancer and Hepatitis B&C in liver cancer), most of the environmental triggers are toxins. We are all familiar with common mutagens (DNA damagers) such as cigarette tars and radiations, but there are a multitude of chemicals in our 21st Century environment and the number is growing. Many can be carcinogenic at a high enough dose, but it may also be true that exposure to a collection of different chemicals at lower doses may be dangerous and this is hard to test.
So our approach to prevention should start with avoidance of potential triggers. This is not as easy as it sounds because we can be exposed to toxic agents through the air we breathe, the food and water we consume, and even through our skin.
Regarding air borne pollutants, one should of course avoid cigarette smoke, but also avoid living or working downwind of factories and power plants and preferably away from areas of traffic congestion, highways, etc.
Avoiding the oral consumption of toxins is best done by:
- Eating organically and low on the food chain
- Drinking filtered water
- Charbroiling of meats should be avoided
- Avoid consumption of large fish such as tuna
Toxin exposure can also come from using nonstick cookware and plastic food containers (especially if they’re heated in a microwave oven). Even food additives which may not be carcinogenic may overload our natural detoxification mechanisms.
Body care products such as lotions and creams can be absorbed through the skin and these, as well as homecare products should be as ‘green’ as possible. Pesticides should be strictly avoided.
There is no question that ionizing radiation causes DNA damage and cancer. X-rays and CT scans should be kept to a minimum. UV light can lead to skin cancer, and radon, which can cause lung cancer, should be measured in homes and remediated.
The effect of other forms of electromagnetic radiation are less clear, but concerns have been raised about proximity to power lines and small sources such as:
- Cordless phones
- Digital clocks
- Cell phones
- Wi-Fi networks, etc.
It certainly seems prudent to minimize use and maximize distance.
Avoidance can certainly help, but living in the 21st century makes some exposures inevitable. This is where detoxification comes into play. Our bodies have elaborate mechanisms for removing toxins, and there are measures that can be taken to improve our detox capacities.
Firstly, our diet should include large amounts of colorful (organic) produce. The color-causing phytochemicals in our food are often involved in detoxification.
Brassica vegetables are particularly helpful:
- Brussels sprouts
Some of the active ingredients in these foods, such as di-indole methane or sulforaphane can even be taken in supplement form.
Other nutritional agents that assist in detoxification include:
- B vitamins
- N-acetyl cysteine/glutathione
- Glycine and others.
There are combination products which include many of the agents, often referred to as detox or cleansing formulas.
The liver is our detox work horse and it needs our support and protection.
Avoiding excess amount of common liver toxins such as:
- Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories like ibuprofen
There are also agents which protect the liver, such as:
- Milk thistle
- Alpha lipoic acid
Balancing intestinal flora also spares the liver and provides other benefits as described below. Good hydration and regular bowel function are also an important part of clearing toxins.
As mentioned previously, DNA damage and repair are major factors in carcinogenesis. Folate and Vitamin C are particularly important in DNA repair.
The immune system, in particular the lymphocytes called Natural Killer Cells, is an important line of defense and surveillance against cancer. Natural Killer Cells are enhanced by a diet high in fruits and vegetables and also by exercise.
Agents such as:
- Vitamins A
- Vitamin C
- Vitamin D
- Mushroom extracts
improve Natural Killer Cell function. Good immune balance is greatly enhanced by having normal intestinal flora (which may also improve estrogen metabolism and reduce breast cancer risk).
There is a growing body of research which indicates that many chronic medical conditions are associated with inflammation, and cancer is on that list.
Inflammation can be triggered by:
Finding the source of inflammation is the best way to address this but other measures can also help.
- Decreasing animal products in the diet
- Balancing intestinal flora
- Reducing sugar consumption
- Maintaining ideal body weight
Supplements such as fish oil and curcumin are also anti-inflammatory.
One should not forget some of the conventional approaches as well. HPV vaccine, for example, has been shown to prevent cervical cancer. In addition, early detection with colonoscopies, PAP tests and mammograms clearly has its place.
The measures outlined here can not only reduce cancer risk, especially in those with a strong family history, but they are also likely to improve overall wellbeing and quality of life.