Written By: Dr. Adam McLeod, ND, BSc (Hons)
The diagnosis of cancer is often so overwhelming and patients are rarely given enough time to answer all their questions. The stressful experience at the appointment makes it so that patients forget the questions that they had thought of prior to the visit. To add to the confusion, friends and family members often inundate patients with information and ideas. The approaches described in this article are only a small subset of the available therapies. You must have professional guidance when putting together a treatment plan as not all situations are the same and not all cancers are the same. When used appropriately this information can be applied to develop a comprehensive integrative cancer treatment plan.
1: Understanding your risk
Some cancers are more aggressive than others and are thus more likely to spread. There are a number of important answers that you should have when you meet with your Naturopathic physician to discuss your situation.
The grade of the cancer determines how rapidly the cells are dividing (this is usually on a scale of 1 to 3 with 3 being the most aggressive). A low grade cancer is generally less likely to spread and it will not grow as quickly. This is very different when compared to a high grade cancer which is going to grow more rapidly and is more likely to spread to distant sites.
What is the receptor status of the cancer? Estrogen positive? Progesterone positive? Her2 positive? Each of these receptors can significantly change the course of treatment moving forward. If it is indeed estrogen positive, how estrogen positive is it on the Allred scale? (Score of 0-8). There are natural and conventional therapies which can be used together to powerfully target these pathways.
If you are being assessed for surgery then there are other questions that should also be asked. How large is the mass? Are there any indications of spread to the lymph nodes or distant sites in the body? Most of these questions can be answered by taking a detailed look at the pathology report and relevant imaging.
If the mass is localized with no sign of spread to local lymph nodes then surgery is often the best choice. If you have an opportunity to completely remove the mass with good margins that is your best chance for a cure. After surgery there are a number of other factors that must be considered such as the size of the margins? was there any lymphovascular invasion? micro metastasis to lymph nodes? The answers to these questions will help to determine the treatment plan moving forward and indicate how aggressively the disease should be treated.
In order to have a clear understanding of your risk these are just a handful of the basic questions which must be answered. Every situation is unique and you need an experienced professional to provide a balanced opinion on your treatment plan. It is not possible to break down the significance of each of these points without going into great detail and all of the information must be gathered so that it is being viewed in the correct context.
2: Stimulate the immune system
Regardless of whether a patient is doing chemotherapy, radiation or is looking to prevent a recurrence of cancer, is is always important to support the immune system. There are many natural tools which activate the immune system and conventional medicine does not really have a equivalent to this. Coriolus versicolor, also known as Turkey tail is a herb that has a long history of use as an immune stimulant. There are many studies which show that it is effective at stimulating the immune system and thus improving outcomes in cancer patients1,2. Astragalus3 and mistletoe4,5 can also be helpful to stimulate the immune system but all of these treatments must be used at the appropriate time.
The biggest mistake that patients make when trying to stimulate the immune system is making the assumption that more is better. When it comes to stimulating the immune system in the context of cancer this is not always the best approach to take. Often less is more, especially when we are trying to support the immune system in the long run. Anyone who has a history of cancer, should be doing something to support their immune system for the rest of their life. This does not mean that they need to be on a long list of supplements. They should be on a few simple therapies to support the immune system as it is ultimately the immune system which will prevent the recurrence of cancer.
3: Inhibit estrogen naturally
If the cancer is estrogen positive then this presents a unique opportunity to inhibit the growth of the cancer. The most commonly used conventional medications to inhibit the effects of estrogen are tamoxifen and letrozole. They work by different mechanisms but the net effect is the same, they remove this estrogen stimulus. There are natural supplements that can also be used to inhibit estrogen and they can be used in conjunction with conventional therapies. Indole-3-Carbinol is a molecule which is abundant in broccoli and cauliflower. It helps your body to break down estrogen and reduces the levels of circulating estrogens6,7,8. It is particularly effective at improving the ratio of the “good estrogens” to the “bad estrogens”9. Melatonin, Quercetin and Grape seed extract are also potent natural inhibitors of estrogen activity.
There are many natural supplements which have estrogenic activity and patients with estrogen positive breast cancer should strictly avoid these products. Unfortunately, patients are rarely given any guidance on this from their medical oncologist. Often they will be told to simply avoid everything, then when the tamoxifen starts to cause hot flashes they decide to try a natural herbal remedy to control the hot flashes. Many of these remedies contain large amounts of strongly estrogenic herbs which directly counteract the effects of tamoxifen and can potentially stimulate the growth of the cancer. There are ways to naturally control hot flashes and inhibit estrogen without counteracting the effect of conventional therapies. When the appropriate therapy is used it can be quite synergistic with the medication.
4: Reduce Stress
When you are stressed out your immune system is weaker. This is a simple concept that is not debated by the main stream medical community. The reasons for this change are obvious. When you are stressed, your sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight branch of the nervous system) kicks in and your body diverts resources away from the immune system to increasing heart rate and blood flow to muscles. This is a primitive system and by doing this makes it so that you will have a greater chance of fleeing from a dangerous situation.
When you are relaxed the opposite happens. Your heart rate slows, your body is able to focus more resources on strengthening the immune system. Taking the time to identify your sources of stress and remove them or find better ways to manage the stress is critical for supporting your immune system. If you reduce stress, then your immune system will be stronger and it will be more likely to identify and destroy abnormal cells before they manifest into a significant clinical disease.
One of the most comprehensive intervention studies in cancer research, published in Archives of General Psychiatry, evaluated the effects of stress-management techniques such as relaxation on cancer recurrence following removal of a malignant melanoma. Not only did members of the relaxation group experience reduced psychological distress, they also had more active immune systems than those in the control group. A six-year follow-up showed a trend toward greater recurrence and higher mortality rates in the control group compared to the relaxation group.
The bottom line is that patients who focus on reducing stress and healing have a better prognosis. People also have lower rates of developing cancer in the first place if they follow these practices. Given what we know about the connection between immune function and stress—as reported in the journal Cancer—this is not surprising.
This is only a small fraction of the available therapies to treat breast cancer and a Naturopathic physician who is skilled in cancer care can help you develop a plan that is specific for your case. Dr. Adam McLeod is a Naturopathic Doctor (ND), BSc. (Hon) Molecular biology, Motivational Speaker and International Best Selling Author. He currently practices in Vancouver, British Columbia where he focuses on integrative cancer care. http://www.yaletownnaturopathic.com
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