According to the latest epidemiologic data, half of you reading this Health Tip will, at some point, hear a variation of the phrase “You have cancer.”
If you die (cancer is the second leading cause of death in the US), the type of cancer will appear on the cause-of-death line of your death certificate.
It used to be that one person in three developed cancer, but now it’s one in two. On the positive side, despite the rising number of people with cancer, more are being cured of their disease and more people than ever can say “When I had cancer” and count themselves among the survivors. Also, when cancer is kept under control more people live longer and die of something else.
Why are the numbers undergoing such shifts?
The top reason we’re seeing more cancer is that we’re living longer. Although our bodies are genetically equipped to clear away cancer cells as quickly as they form, over time these systems weaken and cancer cells start to proliferate.
The second reason for more cancer is an increased awareness and use of screening tests. I hope you’re following a schedule for your mammogram (or thermogram), Pap smear, colonoscopy (or Cologuard), and general wellness exams.
The third reason we see more cancer is that, despite all the resolutions we make, we can’t seem to get off the path marked Consequences of Unhealthy Lifestyle Choices.
So we eat more processed foods (increased risk) and skimp on the fruits and vegetables (increased risk). As a result, we’re more obese (increased risk). We’re also more sedentary (increased risk). We still smoke too much (increased risk), drink too much alcohol (increased risk), overuse the charcoal grill and meat smoker (increased risk), get too much sunburn (increased risk), don’t deal with stress (increased risk), and engage in unsafe sex (increased risk).
Get my drift?
Genetics and environment
Two areas of potential cancer risk that are often given short shrift by both patients and their physicians are genetics and the environment. It’s likely these two are linked in ways that have yet to be completely understood.
Although there are some good genetic tests available to gauge cancer risk (such as those for the BRCA gene linked to breast and ovarian cancer), because genetic screening is not covered by most health insurance policies, most of us will never get tested. However, if your biological family includes a lot of people with cancer, it’s safe to assume you have some sort of genetic predisposition.
Your best bet is to schedule regular screenings and pay strict attention to that list of lifestyle choices two paragraphs up.
I personally find it hard to believe that there are still some scientists and too many politicians who actually question the interplay of a toxic environment (food, air, water) and cancer. If you trace the credentials of these people, they virtually always have some sort of financial interest in keeping your air dirty, water polluted, and food unsafe to eat.
The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), part of the World Health Organization, is an intergovernmental agency with 25 member nations. The agency exists to uncover the causes of cancer.
Since its founding in 1971, IARC has evaluated more than 900 potentially cancer-causing agents, including chemicals, physical and biologic agents, and lifestyle factors. Of these, 400+ are either carcinogenic or “probably carcinogenic.” What everyone agrees on is that we have no idea of the consequences when two, three, or more apparently harmless substances are combined.
Take these steps
Here’s a list of some commonsense steps you can take to avoid exposure to environmental toxins:
–Use chemical-free household products (click here for the Environmental Working Group’s recommendations).
–Use chemical-free cosmetics and personal care products (click here for EWG’s main page).
–Eat whole foods rather than chemically laced processed ones (here’s EWG’s guide to the most and least pesticide-laden whole foods).
–Limit yourself to organically raised (pesticide/herbicide free) produce and ethically raised, hormone/antibiotic free meat and dairy.
–Avoid seafood from areas laced with heavy metals.
Finally, take a look at EWG’s Cancer Defense Diet.
Evaluating personal risk
Two tests are now available that offer a snapshot of your personal risks in a toxic environment. (WholeHealth Chicago patients who would like to try one or both can call and schedule a lab-only. The ELISA-ACT test requires some preparation, including a shower the night before, overnight fasting, and no contact with chemicals such as cosmetics for 24 hours):
—ELISA/ACT Biotechnologies has developed testing that measures how a certain blood cell, called a lymphocyte, responds when exposed to a specific substance (food, chemical, etc.). After an overnight fast, a small amount of your blood is sent to the lab and tested for exposure/sensitivity to environmental chemicals (60 items), toxic minerals and metals (14 items), and additives and preservatives (27 items). This test costs about $550 and is not covered by health insurance, but if you have an HSA (health savings account) you can apply it.
–Nordic Labs in Copenhagen, Denmark, has developed DNA testing that can evaluate how well your body is equipped to detoxify the chemicals you may have been exposed to. Similar to, but much more detailed than, the popular 23andMe testing, a small sample of cells is scraped from the inside of your cheek and sent overnight to Copenhagen. Here’s a sample report. If you scroll through it, you’ll see two specific categories involved with clearing toxins, methylation, and detoxification, as well as how your body may be reacting to toxins (via inflammation).
The question then becomes: If I discover that I have an unpleasant potpourri of toxins in my body and have genetic defects in my detoxification systems, what are my next steps?
For that, we’ll continue next week.
David Edelberg, MD