Simple Choices That Can Increase or Decrease Our Cancer Risk
By Dr. Habib Sadeghi – article by Goop
With all the amazing things modern medicine has to offer, it doesn’t have a great track record when it comes to healing chronic disease: We’ve been stuck in a struggle to eradicate the same diseases that have affected many generations before us, with little progress. As a result, medicine has fallen into the pattern of managing symptoms—mostly with pharmaceuticals—rather than eliminating illness. But when we rush to medicate or to operate, our efforts can make matters worse, predisposing us to other diseases in the future. Medical interventions often make permanent changes to a person’s physiological terrain. I see this phenomenon happening quite often with a disease we’ve arguably been struggling with the longest—cancer.
Past Informs the Present
Think of the body as a plot of land where we want to grow a beautiful garden. The success of our effort depends on a lot of variables: What’s the quality of the soil like? Is it rich with minerals or dry and rocky? Is the nitrogen level in the soil high or low? Are we planting the right seeds to grow in the existing climate? Before the land came to us, was it used as green pasture or trash dump? The point is that every defining factor and decision made in the past and present will affect how the land performs in the future, so we must fully understand its condition and how it functions in order for our garden to grow to maximum effect.
Another way to think of the body is as a flowing river of tens of thousands of interconnected, moving parts and processes. Whatever is introduced to the body upstream in our youth—whether it’s surgery, smoking or another drug habit, a sports injury, and so on—will change the functional terrain of the body, and its effects will be felt downstream later in life. Too often, modern medicine mistakes the symptoms of a disease (its downstream effects) for the cause of a disease, which can be rooted much earlier in the past (i.e. further upstream) than anyone realizes. This is why it’s so important to be conscious of the decisions we make about our bodies today, so that we don’t inadvertently put in motion negative conditions that will be felt downstream tomorrow. In fact, some of the simplest choices we make, with hardly a second thought, could be increasing our downstream risk for cancer.
Probably the most common way we alter the terrain of our bodies and expose ourselves to disease downstream is by taking unnecessary antibiotics. It’s well known by now that the proliferation of antibiotics has contributed to the rise of antibiotic-resistant superbugs. Even worse, antibiotics severely alter the physical terrain of the gut. Designed to kill any and all microorganisms without exception, antibiotics cannot distinguish between microbes that are beneficial to us and those that are harmful. The danger of taking antibiotics is that they destroy millions of colonies of beneficial bacteria in our intestines; these beneficial bacteria form the larger part of our immune system. When our good bacteria fall below a certain percentage, they can’t keep the bad bacteria and pathogens at bay, which leads to diseases of all kinds. I’ve had patients with Crohn’s disease and colon cancer who’d been on antibiotics every other month for years. Their stool samples showed hardly any good bacteria at all. Their guts were nearly sterile.
While no cause-effect relationship has been established between antibiotics and cancer, many epidemiological studies have shown a strong correlation between the two. A six-year study in Finland monitored more than three million people between the ages of thirty and seventy-nine who had no history of cancer. Over the course of the study, researchers found that risk for prostate, breast, lung, endocrine, and colon cancer increased with antibiotic use. Those who had zero to one antibiotic prescription during the designated period experienced no increase in risk. Those with two to five prescriptions saw a 27 percent increase, while more than six prescriptions during the time period resulted in a 37 percent increase in cancer risk. (The participants with more than six prescriptions were also 1.5 times more likely to be diagnosed with less common cancers, such as non-melanoma skin, duodenum, pancreas, kidney, bladder, male genitals, and thyroid cancers, as well as myeloma and leukemia.) A study by the National Cancer Institute that followed ten thousand women over seventeen years found that those who took antibiotics for more than five hundred cumulative days (i.e. more than twenty-five prescriptions) doubled their risk for breast cancer. More surprising, women who took anywhere between one and twenty-five prescriptions saw their risk for breast cancer increase an average of 1.5 times over those who took none.
One of the most common and frequent reasons women are prescribed antibiotics is for urinary tract infections. Some research suggests that the risk of breast cancer may increase more than 70 percent for premenopausal women (under age fifty) who have taken multiple rounds of antibiotics for urinary tract infections in the past. In the past, antibiotics were also a popular prescription for acne. One study found that men who took the antibiotic tetracycline for four or more years to treat acne had a significantly higher risk of prostate cancer.
Antibiotics are invaluable when an illness is serious or life-threatening, but the amount of information linking the casual use of antibiotics with increased cancer risk is substantial. (As the evidence grows, the CDC no longer recommends antibiotics for most ear infections in children, while the American Academy of Pediatrics has issued stricter watch-and-wait guidelines.) The best way to decrease your risk is to boost your immunity—so you don’t get sick in the first place and need antibiotics. To do that, try the following:
Immune-Supporting Food Tips
- Get all processed food out of your diet and eat whole foods full of vitamins and antioxidants.
- Reduce your consumption of grain products, which contain proteins like lectin and gluten that damage the intestinal lining and cause inflammation.
- Reduce starchy foods and sugar. Pathogenic bacteria in the intestines thrive on sugar and starch.
- Eat fermented foods such as sauerkraut, kimchi, yogurt, kefir, and kombucha tea to boost your population of good intestinal bacteria. Also, consider supplementing with herbal immune boosters like echinacea, oil of oregano, coconut oil, and garlic, all of which have strong anti-microbial properties.
Another way we alter the terrain of our bodies is through the overuse of over-the-counter (OTC) drugs. Just because these items are available without a prescription doesn’t mean they’re harmless—even at recommended doses. Not long ago, many doctors were prescribing an aspirin a day as a way for patients to prevent heart attack and stroke, but the innocuous aspirin has a host of potential nasty side effects when taken over time, including gastrointestinal bleeding, and other OTC drugs can have a similar effect. (An elderly patient of mine who been taking ibuprofen regularly for knee pain had blood in her urine. After stopping the medication and using a different treatment for her pain, her urine was almost clear of blood after thirty days, and it was completely clear after sixty.)
If there’s one category of OTC drug that’s used more than pain relievers, it’s antihistamines. Allergy symptoms run the gamut from mild to severe, and antihistamines treat many of the symptoms. Some people suffer frequently through three seasons of the year, and many understandably reach for antihistamine relief during an allergy attack. Doing so frequently, however, could increase the risk of cancer later in life.
Histamine has several important roles in the body, including regulating gut functions for proper digestion, acting as a neurotransmitter to carry messages from one nerve to another, and serving as an immune system modulator. When an allergen enters the body, histamine is secreted by basophils and mast cells in the surrounding connective tissue. It’s histamine’s job to sound the alarm that brings white blood cells to the area, by creating an immediate inflammatory response; histamine causes blood vessels to dilate so the white blood cells can locate and attack the infection or invader. It’s the buildup of histamine in the body that causes the familiar, miserable allergy symptoms, which are a normal part of the body’s natural immune response.
Antihistamines work by attaching to H₁ receptors on cells, preventing the body from producing its own histamine. In essence, it turns off the immune-system alarm, not just to the allergen, but to other invaders in the body, as well. Research has shown mice that were unable to produce or lacked histamine had an increase in the susceptibility to colon and skin cancers, as well as increased frequency in tumor formation. Other research suggests a correlation between between long-term antihistamine use and certain brain tumors.
A Canadian research team working with the National Cancer Institute knew that a chemical compound called DPPE—a chemical cousin to the anti-cancer drug Tamoxifen that was actually found to be associated with an increase risk of cancer—could latch onto H₁ cell receptors, causing malignant cells to grow faster. Since antihistamines are similar in composition to DPPE and attach to the same receptors, researchers were curious as to whether these OTC drugs have the same effect, and it seems they can. Results of the study showed that mice injected with cancer cells that also received regular doses of antihistamines saw their tumor growth significantly increase.
Antihistamines don’t technically cause cancer, but they do mute the signaling of the immune system, which fights off invaders, including cancer cells, in our bodies every day. This is why, instead of reaching for antihistamines during allergy season, you might consider natural remedies that don’t alter the terrain of the body:
- A teaspoon of apple cider vinegar or lemon juice in a glass of water three times a day can help reduce mucus production and cleanse the lymphatic system.
- A Neti pot with homemade saline rinse clears out the nasal passages and can help get you breathing normally again.
- Boosting beneficial gut bacteria with probiotics can sometimes reduce allergic incidents. Eating a low glycemic diet helps as can Dr. Sidney Valentine Haas’s GAPS (Gut and Psychology Syndrome) diet, which is designed to reduce food sensitivities and strengthen the gut lining.
- While there hasn’t been a lot of research on it, there is impressive anecdotal evidence suggesting that consuming raw honey from a beekeeper or farmer where you live can work like a natural “allergy shot,” helping your body adapt to the pollen from the plants and flowers in your area.
Most people don’t realize it, but we unknowingly expose ourselves to cancer risk by flying. The earth’s atmosphere protects us from cosmic radiation from gamma rays and X-rays, as well as electromagnetic radiation from the sun. As altitude increases, the atmosphere gets progressively thinner, providing less protection. The atmosphere is also thickest at the equator, thinning out toward the poles. So the major factors in radiation exposure when flying are: frequency of flight, duration of the flight, altitude, and latitude. Radiation exposure occurs on all flights, but the greatest comes from international routes. At cruising altitudes of 39,000 feet there is virtually no protection from radiation since the plane’s fuselage doesn’t act as a barrier.
Radiation is a concern because it generates an immense amount of free radicals that damage the body at the cellular level, including our DNA. This can set the stage for cellular mutation and cancer development. The body absorbs radiation, accumulating it over a lifetime—measured in units called millisieverts (mSv)—and there is no safe level. While recommendations from agencies around the world vary, all agree that exposure should be kept as low as reasonably possible. Research compiled on flight attendants by the Department of Air Safety, Health & Security and the Association of Flight Attendants found that when compared to the general public of the same age and sex, flight attendants had a 30 percent higher rate of breast cancer and a melanoma rate that was double. Similar statistics suggest that airline pilots have a melanoma rate 10 times greater than the public, 15 times higher if they’re flying internationally (typically longer flights at higher altitudes), and 25 times higher if their flights pass through five or more time zones.
If you fly often, the best thing you can do to mitigate radiation exposure in flight is to try to fly at night, when 99 percent of the sun’s radiation is blocked by the earth. (If you can sleep on a plane, definitely go for the red-eye.) That’s not always an option, though; below are some other things you can try.
- Astaxanthin is an antioxidant that’s 64 times more powerful than vitamin C and is excellent at absorbing UVB rays and neutralizing free radicals before they do their damage. Take 4 mg per day, starting three weeks before the flight.
- Eat a diet rich in antioxidants leading up to departure, which means lots of vegetables, leafy greens, berries, and high-quality saturated fats from organic red meat and real butter for vitamins E and D.
- Take an Epsom salt and baking soda bath soon after the flight to remove toxins from the body.
- The most powerful and mother of all antioxidants is glutathione, a compound of three amino acids. While it’s made by the body, everything from poor diet, stress, medications, toxins, aging, and radiation can deplete our levels. Glutathione deficiency is found in nearly all seriously ill patients. You can boost your glutathione production by eating sulfur-rich foods (like cabbage, broccoli, kale, and cauliflower), exercising regularly, taking a vitamin-B complex, and supplementing with the herb, milk thistle. (I offer patients a high-vitamin, antioxidant IV with glutathione before and after they return from travel.)
When we understand the importance of preserving or restoring the terrain of the body, we can make choices to support our health long into the future. We can also find the real cause of illness much sooner and support our bodies with effective treatments, rather than getting lost in the cycle of symptom management. Every great journey requires an excellent roadmap, and the trip back to wellness can only be completed with a thorough understanding of each patient’s internal terrain. Like a fingerprint, it is unique to each individual. It also provides the clues to creating the kind of personalized treatment that patients respond to, not just by alleviating the symptoms of today, but by preventing the diseases of tomorrow.
If you are interested in finding an integrative/functional medicine physician in your area to help you, please feel free to reach us via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. We will do our best to send you a referral.
A note from Dr. Sadeghi: This article is dedicated to my beloved teacher and mentor, world-renowned physician, Dr. Parvis Gamagami, author of the must-read book, Fight New Ways: Breast Cancer.
For more health and inspirational insights from Dr. Sadeghi, please visit Behiveofhealing.com to sign up for the monthly newsletter; check out their annual health and well-being journal, MegaZEN here. For daily messages of encouragement and humor, follow him on Twitter at Behiveofhealing.
The views expressed in this article intend to highlight alternative studies and induce conversation. They are the views of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of goop, and are for informational purposes only, even if and to the extent that this article features the advice of physicians and medical practitioners. This article is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment, and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice.