Cancer: Prevention Holds The Key

Words: Dr Rajgopal NIDAMBOOR

We all know that prevention of cancer is a top priority — not just for individuals, but also from the doctors’ point-of-view.

To understand the idea we need to first begin with who gets cancer and how cancer probably starts, or originates. As we all know, molecular biology — which provides us with certain early-cancer clues — is focused on unravelling the wayward signals that destabilise cells. On the other hand, it is epidemiology that helps us ‘zero-in’ on environmental factors — or, tangible triggers of many forms of cancer, which is somewhat clear-cut to aim.

Epidemiology is the study of the distribution and determinants of health-related states, or events, in specified populations and their application to control health problems.

Strategic Crusades 

Cancer prevention strategies, for long, have included crusades against smoking, sun bathing, and obesity. What has been appropriately drilled into our minds for just as long, at several levels, may not be all-pervasive, though. Smoking in public places still continues unabated in communities, despite the fact that several nations have banned smoking in public.

Passive smoking is a big cancer risk; no more, no less.

Agreed that in our battle against cancer, we now have a plethora of information — right from media-initiated reports and articles on the subject to a host of ‘Net resources and websites advocating the use of diets rich in fruits and vegetables — most importantly, foods containing antioxidants. One highly celebrated, example: green tea.

There is a large list of researched foods containing antioxidants known as cruciferous vegetables that are known to have anticancer benefits, viz., broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, and watercress. A diet rich in watercress helps the body increase its levels of antioxidants in the blood which can help protect DNA against damage. There are actually a host of cancer fighting foods that contain vitamins and minerals known to fight cancer, which doctors and nutritionists recommend in your diet.

Early Detection Of Cancer

It is important to add that efforts to nab the cancer ‘bug’ early have expanded in their scope, thanks to technological advancement. You name it, and we have access to making use of them in the best manner possible — detection screens, such as prostate specific antigen [PSA] tests, pap smears, mammograms, and thermography. Infrared technology helps specialists to detect suspicious cells up to ten years prior to their formation in breast cancer. When detected a holistic approach may ward off cancer before it has a chance to form. Apart from this, we now have the benefit of pharmaceutical specialties, or medications, that defy cancer just before, or as soon as it starts. This is called chemoprevention.

But, the big question is: is this enough to fight the various forms of cancer? The answer is a big no.

Genetic Expanse

Unmasking our genetic roots and leading a healthy, active life could be the next best thing to beat cancer…

Research reckons that an over-expressed cancer gene [oncogene] may set off an event to provoke cancer in some instances — especially in family-related cancer states. This, they further observe, may also be triggered by a disabled tumour-suppressor gene — present from birth. This, they again say, can lead to cancer at any point in life.

There is also yet another ‘catch.’ You get the point. What is far more common are non-familial cancers. In non-familial cancer states, environmentally-induced mutations may push a cell down through an alternative route to provoke cancer. This notation expands slowly as other genetic aberrations build up. When this happens, it is only a matter of time for the gene expression outlines to change. The next step is disastrous — the disease gets a firm foothold and intensifies in its progression.

While it is well-known that cancer develops from environmental triggers primarily housed in the genes, it is still, however, a tall task to figure out how exactly the genes themselves interact with each other in the disease’s evolution.

Today, the ‘best’ environmental hazard ‘model’ is portrayed by the dangerous link that exists between smoking and lung cancer. In addition to this, we now have the possibility of nutritional deficiencies facilitating the onset of cancer in certain individuals. Another important factor is toxic exposure to environmental chemicals, food additives, and hormonal imbalances linked to increased oestrogen triggered from the foods and modified meats in our diets. Even water contamination is a factor.

Preventing Cancer 

Yes, it is quite possible to prevent cancer — if it is possible. Epidemiology, as touched upon earlier, is one major advance and drawback of this idea, more so, because the incidence of cancer differs from one population to the other. Besides, the type of cancer that may affect one intensely than the other in a given population and vice versa is another pointer — and, food for thought.

In Japan, for instance, there has historically been a high incidence of gastric cancer, unlike the US, where the incidence of colon cancer is high. Today, the first generation of Japanese, in the US, has seen a dramatic change in the pattern. Clinicians say that this could be due to a change in dietetic models too [Western diet], but not necessarily genetics. The inference — it is the environment that has brought about the change.

There is, of course, no fool-proof method, or plan, with which one can prevent cancer. One neat way of doing, perhaps, as clinicians now attest, is by asking the cells in our body not to divide — which is a mammoth task. Cell division is far too complex than any other complex entity known to man.

Most clinicians, therefore, say that it is more practical if one sticks to doing things that lower the risk of cancer — taking care of one’s health, eating a balanced diet, with several servings of vegetables and fruits, doing exercise, yoga and meditation, and, most importantly, giving up, or not smoking at all. Smoking cessation can be a vital step in prevention.

All this is, again, no guarantee; but, it is sure a doable plan of action instead of just accepting the fact that the risk of cancer is something we have to learn to live with, or expect. 

The Vitamin Deficiency Trigger

Deficiencies of vitamins cobalamin [B12], pyridoxine [B6], or folic acid, are reported to ‘replicate’ our DNA, affect the chromosomes, and cause cancer.

Nutrients, like beta-carotene, a vitamin A precursor, and an antioxidant, are said to protect against cancer; they keep cell activity intact and specialised. Selenium, a micronutrient, is said to protect against cancer. Research also evidences that vegetables rich in beta-carotene reduce the risk of cancer substantially. There are others too, such as vitamin C and E, two major nutrients, as also coenzyme Q10 [coQ10], which have well established antioxidant and anti-cancer properties.

Supplementation strategies known to prevent the development and/or progression of cancer include:

  • Calcium
  • Carotenoids
  • Curcumin
  • Garlic
  • Green and black teas
  • Folic acid
  • Melatonin
  • Selenium
  • Silymarin
  • Vitamin A
  • Vitamin C
  • Vitamin D
  • Vitamin E
  • Vitamin K etc.,

Silymarin, from milk thistle, offers anti-cancer properties to fight against prostate cancer cells and is a recognised supplement useful for treating and preventing prostate cancer. This supplement is given by complementary and alternative medicine [CAM] and conventional physicians, nutritionists, and naturopathic doctors.

Milk thistle is well-known for its detoxing effects on the liver; it assists in treating and preventing liver cancer.

Besides, most clinicians and health experts recommend detoxifying the body systems as part of a wellness protocol to keep the body functioning at a higher level of health.

Today, cancer research and therapy are geared on one major ‘focus,’ which is malignancy. Although drugs to prevent occurrence, or inhibit growth of a precursor lesion, is also a focus, or the basis of chemoprevention, there are several nutrients and phytochemicals [nutraceuticals] — or, nutritional supplements — that have been found to be valuable for preventing cancer.

It is quite clear that fibre in food, for one, prevents colorectal cancer. This is based on a simple premise: fibre flushes toxic substances out of the body.

Cuing-In On Cancer Risks

One quick way to hit upon a cancer risk, according to modern research, is by way of biomarkers, not symptom picture, which is not always apparent. It may also, in addition, be possible to monitor precancerous tissues [e.g., intestinal polyps, or oral lesions] to pinpoint a cancerous invasion [This is why colonoscopy procedures are recommended at the fifty-year mark, as well as yearly dental exams].

Whatever the cue for diagnosis, we are far from a point where one would be able to pop a pill to prevent cancer. You get the point. Besides, people are also wary of taking medications — fearing side-effects.

One way of making chemoprevention and other medications acceptable to the discerning consumer, as specialists attest, is by making these drugs relatively safe. Yet, sceptics say that the idea carries a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it can prevent cancer and, on the other, it can lead to drug-induced problems. For example, most adenomas [benign cancer states] do not progress to cancer. Also, long-standing use of aspirin, a cancer-pharmaceutical, for instance, may result sometimes in life-threatening complications.

All the same, further along the road for chemoprevention are encouraging results that have emerged from selective oestrogen receptor modulators [SERMs] in breast cancer, to highlight one example. Tamoxifen, a SERM, given to women with oestrogen receptor-positive disease has shown evidence to prevent cancer in the unaffected breast — though responses are contradictory for it in medical circles.

This brings us to one important perspective — that for cancer prevention to work we need to embrace multiple levels of prevention, keeping in mind the possibility that just one tumour developing over a long period can become cancerous.

Yes, just one cell is all that is needed for a tumour to grow — a tumour that cannot be whisked away just like that.

You get the point, again. In today’s scenario where the odds of getting cancer seem to be increasing, all steps to stop cancer in its pathway should be taken. Yes, there is hope that one day a cure that is not only tangibly effective and palpably safe may arrive.

Yet, the bottom line, as research testifies, needs to be practical and achievable. We need to slow down cancer in its tracks with newer and more potent, but much less harmful, also safe, therapies, which should include integrative, alternative, or complementary therapies.

At the same time, we all need to lead a healthy, balanced, and active life to prevent, or keep the dreadful disease at bay. This is the best and the only practical prescription available at the moment. 

Dr RAJGOPAL NIDAMBOOR, PhD, is a wellness physician-writer-editor, independent researcher, critic, columnist, author and publisher. His published work includes hundreds of newspaper, magazine, web articles, essays, meditations, columns, and critiques on a host of subjects, eight books on natural health, two coffee table tomes and an encyclopaedic treatise on Indian philosophy. He is Chief Wellness Officer, Docco360 — a mobile health application/platform connecting patients with Ayurveda, homeopathic, Unani physicians, and nutrition therapists, among others, from the comfort of their home — and, Editor-in-Chief, ThinkWellness360.

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