Cancer is a word that hits very close to home for a large percentage of the population. Many of us have a friend or family member who has had, or is suffering from a form of cancer. It is the general name for a group of more than 100 diseases in which abnormal cells in a part of the body begin to grow out of control.
Eye Opening Cancer Statistics:
In some areas of the world cancer is more prevalent than others. The United States ranks 5th highest in the world in a list of 50 countries. In the U.S., Pennsylvania is a state that is ranked in the highest category cancer rate with 470-510 cases of cancer per 100,000 people. Roughly speaking, that is 63,000 new cases of cancer a year in PA. With that statistic we can classify living in Pennsylvania as an “increased cancer risk area” due to a number of environmental issues. This is not to say that the environment is the only source for cancer. One rather common cancer risk factor in Pennsylvania, that many people are aware of, is Vitamin D deficiency. Optimal blood levels of vitamin D3 are between 65-75 ng/dl. Lab reference ranges are 30-100 ng/dl so people with sub optimal levels often fall through the cracks and suffer from a compromised level of anti-cancer immune function. Low level of Vitamin D is just the tip of the iceberg though.
There are a number of contributing factors to developing cancer including family history and genetic pre-disposition, unhealthy diet, chronicity of stress levels, recurring exposures to chemicals, daily use of hormones and toxins used in household and personal care products, frequent alcohol consumption, nicotine use, poor quality of sleeping patterns, increased body weight and a high body fat composition, history of emotional trauma and vitamin, mineral or phytonutrient deficiencies. When you add a number of those risk factors together you increase the odds of creating an environment that harbors cancer cell progression. As a Clinical Nutritionist and Functional Medicine practitioner in Pittsburgh for over 22 years, I have worked with hundreds of oncology patients. The following article is an overview of the supportive role that Natural Medicine can play to support patients while they are in cancer treatment.
Functional Medicine’s Role in Cancer Treatment:
It is very rare for me to diagnose a patient with cancer. The majority of oncology patients who present for care are already diagnosed and are seeking support for healing faster, protection from the possible side effects of cancer treatment or to prevent cancer reoccurrence. First, and foremost, the alternative medicine community has no position in replacing the role of the oncology team of physicians. Oncologists are the experts in charge of diagnosing and treating the tumor or mass of cancer cells. Our role during medical treatment is generally supportive. With that, the level of support can be immense when appropriately outlined. Any patients who ask for “natural cures and treatments for cancer”, with the mindset of replacing medical treatment, are referred to an oncologist for evaluation and management alongside the care that I can provide. In 22 years of practice I have helped a small number of patients treat early onset, low risk cancers naturally. I have observed DCIS, Cervical Cell and Prostate cancers resolve without chemo, surgery or radiation. All of those patients had supervising physicians who were monitoring, tumor markers, blood work or scans to confirm that they were making appropriate progress.
A Shift in Cancer Thinking:
It is important to briefly describe the different perspective that many Clinical Nutritionist and Functional Medicine doctors have regarding cancer. Let’s start with the fact that we all have cancer cells. This is a normal occurrence in every human body. Our immune system is designed to identify and remove these abnormal cells before they progress into a tumor or mass. Optimally balanced body systems are usually fine-tuned to manage abnormal cells that could become cancer. Knowing that your oncology team will be killing the cancer cells, I see my primary role as looking for the imbalances in the body that allowed the cancer cells to be stronger, smarter and faster than your immune system. Simply, my goal is to identify why cancer was able to survive. Did you know that a family history of cancer usually only represents 5-10% risk factor? It is often said that genetic predisposition loads the gun but environment pulls the trigger. So, what is the environment that allowed cancer to progress? Let’s figure that out up front and develop a line of attack from there.
If you are obese, live near a chemical plant that dumps toxins in the air you breathe and the water you drink, you hold a very high stress job, eat a primarily refined carbohydrate and processed food diet, drink alcohol regularly and have awful sleeping patterns, I would suggest that those are some the reasons that cancer survived and progressed in your body. Add that 5-10% genetic predisposition to carcinoma and trouble could start to pop up. Do you still need medical treatment for cancer if we found the reason why you have cancer? Of course, but after your cancer has been treated, what is to stop the cancer from returning if you don’t change the environment that harbored it? Nothing. What about the idea of cleaning up your environment, diet, lifestyle, body and immune function while you are undergoing medical treatment for cancer? Now you have the best of both worlds; a medical team of specialists treating your specific cancer and a functional team helping recreate the healthiest environment for your body to heal its self. Now that is a powerful combo!
A Few Hard Questions:
According to the national cancer institute; “Healthy eating habits are important during and after cancer treatment. Nutrition therapy is used to help cancer patients keep a healthy body weight, maintain strength, keep body tissue healthy, and decrease side effects both during and after treatment”. So, may I ask why donuts, candy bars and sodas are offered to patients while they are receiving cancer treatments? There is a massive oversight with many oncology groups regarding health. Understandably, disease management is the focus of your medical team but if sugar has been proven to feed cancer, why are patients given the most toxic forms of sugar to consume while they are in active treatment? The answer to this is that your medical team most likely does not have much health training. They are disease specialists, for which they have extensive training. Similarly, I would not advise patients on what chemo, radiation, immune therapy or surgery to receive for their cancer. That is not my specialty.
I have three wonderful patients who are Oncologists. They came to me for care after observing patients we had in common who had incredible, unexpected “beating the odds” outcomes. When asked about nutrition and functional health training, all three simply replied “we do not have any”. 37% of American medical schools have 1 hour of elective nutrition training. Did you know that the number one bio-marker to predict breast cancer reoccurring is body composition? Normal body weight = lower risk, overweight = higher risk, obese, morbid obese or super-morbid obesity = very high risk of cancers coming back. I’m repeating this to emphasize; the number one risk factor for breast cancer coming back after treatment is the patient’s body weight! So, if body weight determines the risk of reoccurrence, what do you think about the power of healthy body composition and prevention of cancers in the first place?
I spoke at an American Cancer Society survivor symposium in 2015. I asked the audience a number of questions. #1, By a show of hands who remembers the moment they were diagnosed with cancer? #2, Who remembers the struggle and battle with cancer during medical treatments? #3 Who celebrated when they became cancer-free? There were a lot of hands in the air for these three questions. I continued…
#4 Who here was thoroughly educated on why they developed cancer? #5 How many of you were asked to explore or were educated on lifestyle and risk factors like stress, body composition, diet, hydration, sleeping patterns and toxic exposures with relation to preventing reoccurrence? #6 How many people’s medical team communicated to them that beating cancer does not address why you had cancer? With the last three questions, I was met with blank faces and very few hands went up. This paradigm shift was discussed in detail, the audience was empowered and a strategy for thinking differently was offered. In my opinion, once you are deemed cancer free, and released from medical treatment, this is where the journey begins to identify why there was cancer and how to be healthy enough to prevent it from coming back a second time.
Specifically, what does a Functional Medicine practitioner offer a Cancer Patient?
First, Diet. After a clinical history is taken and diagnostic testing performed, we start with your diet. “Food as Medicine” is a foundation of any Functional Medicine practice. The truth is, your diet is unique to your needs. There is no “one size fits all cancer diet”. Authors, bloggers and YouTube doctors who you follow may lead you to think this way but your optimal diet is unique to your type of cancer, body needs and individual biochemistry. There are some basic recurring themes in the cancer diets like low sugar, low refined carbohydrate, low dairy etc.… but please remember, food can be the medicine that heals your body or, quite literally, the poison that takes you down. This is unique to the individual.
Secondarily, your Clinical Nutritionist / Functional Medicine practitioner will outline ways to optimize your modifiable lifestyle factors. Sleep, Exercise, Rest, Stress Response, Proper Hydration and Nutritional Needs. This optimization of body systems supports a more robust level of healing. During cancer treatment you are at war. You need to bring your best players along for the battle to garner the best odds of victory.
Third, each type of cancer has specific, clinically documented, vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients or herbal remedies that promote healing at a cellular level. There are vitamins that:
- work against specific cancers
- offset negative side effects of chemotherapy and radiation
- prevent cancers reoccurrence
- support chemotherapy/radiation working better for your cancers
- minimize deficiency status caused by medications
This is where there tends to be the most confusion between disciplines. Most of my cancer patients communicate that their Oncologists tell them to avoid taking supplements while in treatment. After a brief phone call with the oncology team, this is often cleared up. The most important role of your Functional Medicine practitioner, with regards to supplement therapy, is to understand what is supportive, and protective yet not contraindicated with the specific medical treatment that you are using. There are vitamin therapies that have been studied to improve the outcomes of certain chemotherapy agents, nutrients that actually enhance the anti-cancer effects of the drug. Similarly, there are natural supports that can interfere with your medical therapy working and it is imperative that this information is clearly understood. Each drug has its own list. Some medical treatments cause vitamin deficiency and in most cases, those can be prevented with appropriate therapeutic dosing.
I have had many patients present for care who were taking supplements that interfered with their prescribed chemotherapy or radiation. With this, I can completely understand why many oncology groups have hesitation with the use of supplements. I shudder when a patient tells me that they went to a health food store and the manager told them that “chemo is toxic so here is a liver detox supplement to help”. Actually, this scenario is rather common and very disturbing. Does your oncology team have any training in what diet and supplement regimen you should follow? Very rarely. So, in my experience, they often advise against it. That is why people hire a Board-Certified Clinical Nutritionist and Certified Functional Medicine practitioner to manage that scope of their care.
Your Immune System as Part of the Team:
It would be an oversight to ignore the role of your immune system in this article. Just because cancer was able to get ahead of your immune system does not mean that your innate immune response can’t be a valuable player in this battle. The medical therapies used to treat cancers are rather powerful so the natural immune response is often overlooked. Your immune system is integral in supporting the capability of the body surviving and thriving during and after medical treatments. I want my patient’s immune systems on board for the battle they are fighting. Chemotherapy is designed to target rapidly moving cells; in many cases this means that the healthy active cells in the gut lining are damaged by the chemo too. Most of you know that 70% of your immune system resides in the gut, so this is an important space to lay down a line of protection while in medical treatment. With the gut lining in mind, there are specific contraindications with probiotics and medical treatments that need to be clearly understood. If your white blood count drops well below normal probiotic therapy should be discontinued to prevent infection. What if your cancer is a blood cell cancer that affects the immune cells like Leukemia, Lymphoma or Myeloma? In this case, taking supplements that promote immune stimulus can stimulate cancer growth. Your practitioner should be able to answer these questions with ease.
If you are seeking natural or alternative care for help with a cancer diagnosis and your practitioner makes grandiose claims about “treating cancers naturally” or using “cures that the U.S. Government does not know about”, please get a second opinion. If what your practitioner is saying does not make sense or does not feel right to you, please get a second opinion. If your practitioner claims that their “cancer protocol” works for all cancers, they are wrong. There is no “one size fits all” anti-cancer protocol. This line of thinking is just wrong. Every cancer, cancer treatment, cancer approach, nutrition protocol and cancer diet should be UNIQUE TO THE INDIVIDUAL. The manager of the store where you buy vitamins may not be qualified to give you advice. Are they willing to answer questions from your Oncologist? Do they have malpractice insurance? Are they licensed to practice in the state where you live? Maybe not, it is worth asking. If any practitioner suggests that you stop treating with your medical oncology team to treat your cancer naturally, stand up and leave. There are evidence based, human clinical trials and studies with published data supporting the safe use of therapeutic doses of specific vitamins and herbs for each specific cancer treatment. There are also specific lists of contraindications. None of this information is in place to replace your medical team.
A cancer diagnosis is more common in Pennsylvania compared to many parts of the country. There is a very well-established medical delivery team who specializes in diagnosing and treating cancer. When you add the support of a Functional Medicine practitioner and Certified Clinical Nutritionist to your team you have the best of both worlds. The individual battle against cancer is heavy. The treatments can be hard to manage for many. There are tools available to help minimize side effects and optimize outcomes. Part of that improved healing potential comes from being empowered to fight the cancer with your own lifestyle choices. Learning why cancer progressed in your body and what lifestyle factors may be behind the diagnosis brings hope and new tools to the battle. The food that you eat can be part of the medicine that heals your body or the poison that takes you down, this is unique to the individual. Staying away from doctors or nutritionists who make grandiose non-sensical claims is important to your safety. A specific clinical protocol of vitamin therapies can be safely added to your medical treatments to prevent damage and nutrient deficiency, protect healthy cells, support clinical outcomes and repair damaged tissues.
A final note on spirit. The most positive outcomes that I have observed in my 22 years of using Clinical Nutrition and Functional Medicine to support cancer patients have come from patients who employ a spirit of overcoming. Having cancer is an opportunity to rise to a huge challenge and overcome. Make that part of your life story, blasting through a cancer diagnosis and treatment and thriving on the other side by claiming optimal health. I am grateful for the lessons I have learned from working with these incredible patients. It is an honor to serve this community!