Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Assessing Your True Cancer Risk

Assessing your true cancer risk is not just about diagnosing cancer early, it is also about preventing cancer. Cancer prevention requires a belief and an understanding that cancer is logical, it happens for specific reasons. Cancer is not random. Health and disease follow the same laws as nature. A person's body reacts and responds to everything they encounter, they inhale, they ingest and what they think.

At the risk of simplifying the causes of cancer, cancer (like most diseases) occurs because the body can not keep up with the innate repair process. The body, or more specifically, parts of the body start to break down. Where cancer "hits" a person will relate back to the factors in a person's life, and will be affected by a person's specific susceptibilities.

Assessing Risk Involves

1. Susceptibilities 

Each person has their unique susceptibilities and areas of weakness. A person's genetics, constitution, occupational exposures, history of illness, medications, where they grew up, lifestyle habits, etc. all determine the most likely areas of a concern for a person. Assessing your areas of susceptibilities involves working with a naturopathic doctor and completing a detailed intake, laboratory testing and physical exam. A thorough understanding of a person's susceptibilities helps to narrow down the factors that are most likely contributing to a person's health concerns.

2. Lifestyle Habits

Lifestyle factors that are most commonly linked to cancer include such things as smoking history and alcohol intake, but it also includes dietary habits and level of hydration. Smoking is a known cause or contributing factor for many types of cancers such as lung cancer or pancreatic cancer. A diet low in fiber is associated with colorectal cancer. Dehydration impacts the body's ability to get rid of toxins and weakens the protective membranes of the body.  The importance of addressing lifestyle factors increases dramatically when a person has cancer or is undergoing cancer treatments.

3. Infections

Severe infections or lingering infections can cause cancer if they are not properly managed. For example, Helicobactor pylori (H. pylori) can be a contributing factor to Stomach Cancer, Epstein Barr virus (Mono) has been linked to different lymphoma-type cancers, hepatitis virus has been linked to liver cancer.  If you have had a history of severe infections then it is important to ensure that you are addressing the immune system (such as taking herbs) as part of your treatment strategy.  Severe infections can contribute to cancer primarily if the infection was never properly resolved.  For example, having H. pylori and treating the symptoms with a prescription for heartburn versus identifying and addressing the underlying infection can leave you at risk for stomach cancer.

4. Environmental Toxins

Exposure to heavy metals and environmental chemicals is increasingly becoming associated with various types of cancers, such as breast cancer, lung cancer, skin cancer, ovarian cancer and bladder cancer. Environmental toxins disrupt cellular functions, decrease the absorption of needed minerals and alter the normal activities in the body. Identifying and addressing your environmental toxic load is one of the most proactive steps that you can take to decrease your cancer risk. Talk to your naturopathic doctor about heavy metal testing and environmental chemical testing. Assessing environmental toxin risk can be one of the most preventative steps that you can take to limit your risk of cancer. For example;

5. Medication History and Medical Tests

Specific medications increase a person's risk of developing cancer. Knowing the side-effects and contraindications to all of your medication is an important preventative step. For example:

  • proton-pump inhibitors such as omeprazole which are taken for heartburn or GERD, are associated with an increased risk of stomach cancer
  • HRT (hormone replacement therapy) and other hormone-type medications have been associated with many different cancers including breast cancer and liver cancer
  • diuretics such as spironolactone are associated with increase occurrence of tumors
  • immunosuppressants such as Elidel which is a topical cream for eczema or opioids are associated with lymphoma and skin cancer
  • calcium-channel blockers such as nifedipine or amlodipine are associated with increased risk of breast cancer
  • medications taken for diabetes such as metformin increases a person's risk of pancreatic cancer
  • statin medications taken for high cholesterol are often associated with a decreased risk of some cancers, such as colorectal cancer; but there is also a concern that statins increase the risk of breast cancer.

X-radiation and gamma-radiation have been linked to a number of cancers including thyroid cancer, breast cancer, lung cancer and leukemia. The risk of developing cancer depends on a person's age and the degree of exposure. Younger children, for example, are at greater risk for thyroid cancer whereas the risk for lung cancer increases with age.  The use of X-rays and other radiation exposure should be minimized.

6. Activity Level

A sedentary lifestyle has been associated with increased cancer risk for specific cancers such as thyroid cancer.  The body needs to move on a regular basis in order to assist in the removal of toxins and to ensure that nutrients are distributed throughout the body.  It is also important to move on a regular basis to ensure that you can continue to move throughout all your life.

7. Stress

Although stress is associated with increased risk of cancer, it is not just about being busy or having too much too do.  When looking at the stress in your life, I encourage you look at it from three perspectives - intensity, duration and impact. Stress is generally a concern when the intensity, duration or impact are severe.  It is not the stress itself that contributes to cancer, but how it is handled.  Learning how to handle stress versus suppressing it or distracting yourself from it can dramatically improve health and prevent all types of diseases, including cancer.

Check out the American Cancer Society's website for a listing of known and probably human carcinogens.

Laboratory Testing

The confirmation of cancer is generally done by scans, MRI, or other detailed diagnostic tests, but there are simple low-cost laboratory testing that can help determine your cancer risk including:

  • Carcinoembryonic Antigen (CEA) markers are specific for cancer.  CA15-3 is often used to assess or stage breast cancer, CA19-9 is used when assessing for pancreatic or colorectal cancer.  CA-125 can indicate risk of ovarian cancer.
  • Complete Blood Count (CBC) is a standard blood test that is used to assess for infections, anemia, red and white blood cell status, and it can indicate the presence of specific cancers such as leukemia.
  • Liver Function Tests including AST and Alkaline phosphatase.
  • Environmental testing using urine or hair can indicate if environmental toxins are a risk factor that needs to be addressed.
  • Cancer tumor markers are available to assess for a wide range of different cancers.  An area of tremendous research over the last 10 years has been on early cancer diagnosis. As such there are a number of different lab tests that have been developed to provide insight in the mysterious field of cancer diagnosis. Talk to one of our naturopathic doctors about the lab tests that are available. 

Cancer Prevention Steps

  1. Take a good look at your unique susceptibilities and your lifestyle. Addressing your susceptibilities is often the first step. For example, if you have a history of digestive issues it is important to ensure that you know how to probably support your digestive health and ongoing healing. Improving your lifestyle may not prevent cancer, but it can go a long way in the treatment and recovery from cancer.
  2. Assess for environmental toxins, including heavy metals and environmental chemicals.  Avoid exposure to these toxins as much as possible in your home and work environment.  If you do have ongoing exposure, or a history of exposure, work with your naturopathic doctor to address this concern.
  3. Support you immune system on an ongoing basis.  If you have a history of severe infections or have a weakened immune system work with your naturopathic doctor.
  4. Take a look at your medications and ensure that you are well informed of the risks associated with each one.  If possible, look for healthier alternatives if there is a concern.
  5. Talk to your naturopathic doctor about the laboratory tests that may be beneficial for you.

To learn more about cancer prevention or assessing your individual cancer risk talk to one of your naturopathic doctors.  If you or someone you know has cancer, check out our website on our approach to supporting and treating those with cancer.