Written By: Dr. Adam McLeod, ND, BSc (Hons)
It seems that every week there is another headline talking about the importance of preventative medicine. These articles often focus on how much money governments could save if people were adequately screened to treat disease before it manifests into a complex clinical pathology. Clearly improved screening is important in the context of preventative medicine but this approach only allows us to detect disease at an earlier stage. What is frequently neglected is the fact that much can be done to modify your risks so that the disease will not develop in the first place. This is particularly relevant in the context of cancer.
Every day I see patients who were treated by the cancer agency before being declared cancer free. Upon being declared cancer free they are quickly discharged from the cancer agency and they are given no tools or information about how to prevent the recurrence of cancer. In fact, when patients inquire about what they can do to prevent future cancers they are directly told “nothing”. This could not be further from the truth and [the scientific literature does not support] this bizarre statement. Any doctor who claims to be practicing evidence based medicine must stop telling patients that there is nothing that they can do because this is not what the scientific literature says on the subject. There are many things that can be done to prevent the recurrence of cancer and often the proper application of only a few simple natural therapies can substantially reduce the risk of recurrence.
In this article I will break down a few simple lifestyle modifications and natural therapies which when used appropriately can help to prevent the recurrence of cancer. There are of course additional strategies that can be used to reduce the risk of recurrence and this article only discusses a couple of approaches. You must have professional guidance when implementing these therapies as they must be used in the proper clinical context. Not all cancers are the same and completely different strategies are used with different forms of cancer.
Reducing your intake of simple sugars
Study after study has demonstrated a direct connection between sugar intake and cancer risk14,15,16,17,18. Cancer cells often have significantly more insulin receptors than normal cells. Therefore they respond rapidly to insulin and they will always be more effective at grabbing sugar from the blood stream and utilizing it as an energy source.
Patients often get confused about what this information means and how it can be integrated appropriately into their diet. There is a big difference in the metabolism of a food rich in simple sugars compared to a food that contains complex carbohydrates. When you eat a food rich in simple sugars such as candy, the body rapidly absorbs the sugar. This causes a rapid and significant elevation of the sugar concentration in your blood. In response to this sugar spike, the pancreas secretes insulin, which circulates through the entire body in an effort to bring the sugar levels back to normal.
Insulin interacts with the receptors on the surface of both normal and cancerous cells. Upon interacting with the cells, it triggers them to pull sugar in from the blood until the blood sugar level drops back to a normal level. Cancer cells have more insulin receptors, so they will always take advantage of this insulin spike more effectively than normal cells. It is this spike in insulin and insulin-like growth factors that stimulate the growth of cancerous cells15. In other words, it is not the sugar content that is stimulating growth; it is the response to sudden increases in sugar levels.
Complex carbohydrates are metabolized very differently in the body. They do not cause a sudden spike in blood sugar levels. The sugar in complex carbohydrates is slowly released as the food passes through the gastrointestinal tract. As a result, it is not necessary for the pancreas to secrete as much insulin because there is no spike in blood sugar that needs to be controlled. Often by making just a few simple dietary changes it is possible to dramatically reduce these sugar spikes and eliminate hidden sources of these simple sugars.
The correlation between high glycemic diets and cancer risk is well established. It is essential that patients looking to prevent recurrence of cancer adhere to a low glycemic diet. In one study researchers looked for a connection between fasting blood glucose levels and risk of cancer recurrence. There was a strong correlation between high fasting blood glucose levels and cancer recurrence20. In other words, the women who consistently had high levels of sugar in their blood had a higher risk of developing cancer. This is not surprising given what we know about the relationship between sugar and cancer.
Supporting the Immune System
After removing cancer it is critical that your immune system remains strong to patrol the body and attack any residual cells prior to them manifesting into a clinical disease. There are many naturopathic therapies which can be used to effectively support the immune system. The first year following the removal of cancer is the most important time to stimulate the immune system.
It is absolutely essential that you have professional guidance when developing a treatment plan to support the immune system. Every cancer is different and in some cancers this is completely contraindicated. You do not have to be on many different supplements to stimulate the immune system. In fact, less is more when it comes to natural immune supports.
I always recommend that patients keep their treatment plan dynamic and simple when trying to stimulate the immune system. The reason I say this is due to the biochemistry behind these natural immune supports. Essentially we are throwing a molecule at the immune system which it does not recognize and as a result the immune system gets excited. In the process of getting excited in response to these new supplements, it also gets excited against any cancer cells that remain. The problem is that if you keep using the same supplement repeatedly for a long period of time (ie. years) then your immune system simply stops reacting to it. If you throw everything at your immune system right away then your immune system will eventually stop reacting to everything.
Natural therapies such as astragalus, coriolus versicolor and mistletoe have a long history of safe and effective use for immune stimulation. They work very well to stimulate the immune system and when used appropriately it can give your body the tools that it needs to fight of any residual remains of the disease.
Exercise and Cancer
Everyone has heard that exercise is good for your well-being. Exercise has been shown to elevate your mood and increase energy levels. Patients who regularly exercise are statistically less likely to develop a number of serious health conditions. The effectiveness of exercise is not questioned in the medical community; yet when it comes to cancer care, patients often forget about the benefits of exercise. Instead, they focus their attention on more exotic treatment plans. Exercise is an important part of any integrative cancer program.
There are several reasons why exercise has such a positive impact on cancer patients3. The immune system becomes more active during exercise as the monocytes increase the concentration of specific receptors on their surface1. Exercise also significantly helps patients with their sleep and it is well known that the majority of healing takes place during sleep. When you get better quality sleep, your cells will be less stressed and this will significantly boost the strength of your immune system.
Not only is exercise important during cancer therapies, it is also effective at preventing cancer recurrence7. Although some researchers dispute the significance of recurrence prevention, no one disputes that regular exercise decreases overall mortality in cancer survivors5,6. Women with estrogen positive breast cancer after a successful surgery will be put on tamoxifen for a minimum of five years to reduce the risk of recurrence by only a few percentage points in some cases8. In one large study of women with a history of breast cancer, it showed that women who walked three to five hours per week were 43% less likely to develop recurrent breast cancer and 50% less likely to die from breast cancer. This exercise group was compared to women who engaged in less than one hour of physical activity per week9. This study clearly demonstrates the importance of exercise in the context of cancer prevention. I find it amazing that some patients will readily comply with taking a drug for five to ten years, yet are resistant to regular exercise.
The exercise program does not need to be an extreme and rigorous routine, nor does it have to be a specific activity to prevent recurrence. All that matters is that your cardiovascular system gets a good workout from regular aerobic activity. Even a moderate cardio workout for less than 30 minutes, five days per week, can be very helpful. Make the time for this activity because it can make a significant difference in your response to treatment.
At every phase in cancer treatment, regular exercise is a powerful adjunctive therapy. Regular exercise helps to prevent the development of cancer and it also helps patients to get through the aggressive cancer therapies necessary to kill cancer. More cancer patients need to be aware of the simple fact that regular exercise makes a significant difference when fighting cancer. This is a simple yet effective adjunctive therapy that should be actively encouraged in every patient capable of regular exercise.
You can help your body fight cancer by reducing stress and focusing your intentions on healing. One of the most comprehensive intervention studies in cancer research evaluated the effects of stress management techniques, such as relaxation on cancer recurrence following removal of malignant melanoma11. Not only did the relaxed group experience reduced psychological distress, they also had more active immune systems than the control group not practicing relaxation. A six-year follow up of these patients showed a trend toward greater recurrence and higher mortality rates in the control group, compared to the relaxed group. The bottom line is that patients who focus on reducing stress and focus their minds on healing not only have a better prognosis, they also have lower rates of developing cancer in the first place10. Given what we know about the connection between immune function and stress, this conclusion is not surprising.
If there was a drug which had a similar effect on reducing cancer recurrence, you can bet that every patient who had a melanoma surgically removed would be on that medication. The great thing about this is that you don’t even need a pill, you can make a measurable difference by reducing stress and focusing your intentions. When fighting cancer it is essential that the patient use every tool at their disposal to increase the chances of a successful recovery. The immune system must be strong to fight off any serious disease. Our minds can dramatically influence how our cells respond to stress and this is intimately connected to the function of the immune system13. We all need to take control of our health and use this mind-body connection to our advantage. By reducing stress and focusing our minds on healing we will live longer and happier lives12. This is a powerful tool that we can all use to our advantage.
Dr. Adam McLeod is a Naturopathic Doctor (ND), BSc. (Hon) Molecular biology, Motivational Speaker and International Best Selling Author. He currently practices at his clinic in Vancouver, British Columbia where he focuses on integrative oncology. https://www.yaletownnaturopathic.com
1) Peters, C., et al. “Exercise, cancer and the immune response of monocytes.” Anticancer research 15.1 (1994): 175-179.
2) Mock, Victoria, et al. “Effects of exercise on fatigue, physical functioning, and emotional distress during radiation therapy for breast cancer.” Oncology nursing forum. Vol. 24. No. 6. 1997.
3) Burnham, Timothy R., and Anthony Wilcox. “Effects of exercise on physiological and psychological variables in cancer survivors.” Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise (2002).
4) Courneya, KERRY S. “Exercise in cancer survivors: an overview of research.” Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise 35.11 (2003): 1846-1852.
5) Irwin, Melinda L., et al. “Randomized controlled trial of aerobic exercise on insulin and insulin-like growth factors in breast cancer survivors: the Yale Exercise and Survivorship study.” Cancer Epidemiology Biomarkers & Prevention 18.1 (2009): 306-313.
6) Irwin, Melinda L., et al. “Influence of pre-and postdiagnosis physical activity on mortality in breast cancer survivors: the health, eating, activity, and lifestyle study.” Journal of clinical oncology 26.24 (2008): 3958-3964.
7) Loprinzi, Paul D., et al. “Physical activity and the risk of breast cancer recurrence: a literature review.” Oncology nursing forum. Vol. 39. No. 3. Oncology Nursing Society, 2012.
8) Early Breast Cancer Trialists’ Collaborative Group. “Relevance of breast cancer hormone receptors and other factors to the efficacy of adjuvant tamoxifen: patient-level meta-analysis of randomised trials.” The lancet 378.9793 (2011): 771-784.
9) Holmes, Michelle D., et al. “Physical activity and survival after breast cancer diagnosis.” Jama 293.20 (2005): 2479-2486.
10) Bovbjerg, Dana H. “Psychoneuroimmunology. Implications for oncology?.” Cancer 67.S3 (1991): 828-832.
11) Fawzy, Fawzy I., et al. “Malignant melanoma: effects of an early structured psychiatric intervention, coping, and affective state on recurrence and survival 6 years later.” Archives of General Psychiatry 50.9 (1993): 681-689.
12) Fawzy, Fawzy I., et al. “A structured psychiatric intervention for cancer patients: I. Changes over time in methods of coping and affective disturbance.” Archives of General Psychiatry 47.8 (1990): 720-725.
13) Veenhoven, Ruut. “Healthy happiness: Effects of happiness on physical health and the consequences for preventive health care.” Journal of happiness studies 9.3 (2008): 449-469.
14) Augustin, L. S. A., et al. “Dietary glycemic index and glycemic load, and breast cancer risk: a case-control study.” Annals of Oncology 12.11 (2001): 1533-1538.
15) Franceschi, S., et al. “Dietary glycemic load and colorectal cancer risk.” Annals of Oncology 12.2 (2001): 173-178.
16) Michaud, Dominique S., et al. “Dietary sugar, glycemic load, and pancreatic cancer risk in a prospective study.” Journal of the National Cancer Institute 94.17 (2002): 1293-1300.
17) Gnagnarella, Patrizia, et al. “Glycemic index, glycemic load, and cancer risk: a meta-analysis.” The American journal of clinical nutrition 87.6 (2008): 1793-1801.
18) Qi, Lu, and Frank B. Hu. “Dietary glycemic load, whole grains, and systemic inflammation in diabetes: the epidemiological evidence.” Current opinion in lipidology 18.1 (2007): 3-8.
19) Turina, Matthias, Donald E. Fry, and Hiram C. Polk Jr. “Acute hyperglycemia and the innate immune system: clinical, cellular, and molecular aspects.” Critical care medicine 33.7 (2005): 1624-1633.
20) Belle, Fabiën N., et al. “Dietary fiber, carbohydrates, glycemic index, and glycemic load in relation to breast cancer prognosis in the HEAL cohort.” Cancer Epidemiology Biomarkers & Prevention 20.5 (2011): 890-899.
21) Kroenke, Candyce H., et al. “Dietary patterns and survival after breast cancer diagnosis.” Journal of clinical oncology 23.36 (2005): 9295-9303.
22) Contiero, Paolo, et al. “Fasting blood glucose and long-term prognosis of non-metastatic breast cancer: a cohort study.” Breast cancer research and treatment 138.3 (2013): 951-959.