A client walks into your clinic with a possible diagnosis of bowel cancer after blood has been found in the stool during a routine screening. Do you:
- Panic and politely ask them to leave whilst you quiver in the corner of your consulting room
- Pretend you know exactly what to do and then ignore the cancer and treat all their other ailments first
- Proceed with caution and treat the patient as best you know how before referring them on to someone with cancer expertise
- Become an overnight expert in their condition and give yourself a stress disorder in the process, for fear of getting something wrong
If truth be told all, or most, of the above will probably cross your mind if this is not an area you are accustomed to dealing with in your clinic. Cancer – thanks to the media and heavy legalities surrounding its treatment – has become something we have been hard-wired to fear. Shrouded in this strange almost mythical aura, we have been led to believe that cancer can creep up and wipe out any one of us, at any time, often with little or no warning. Despite ongoing developments in treatments, and dramatically improved prognosis for many cancers, being told you have cancer is, for many, still far too close to being served a suspended death sentence, in part due to the formality and ‘clinical’ way in which cancer is dealt with by the medical profession.
Four years as a research scientist for one of the pharmaceutical giants, developing exciting pharmacotherapies to target cancer cells’ weaknesses, one of which is now a licensed therapy for ovarian cancer, followed by many years reading about and researching natural support for cancer, both for personal interest and satisfaction, and to help a loved one afflicted, I have gained a profound respect for cancer, as well as the amazing potential of so many interventions, that make it nowhere near as scary as the media and science community might have us believe.
So what is cancer? And, despite the conspiracy theories, why haven’t we cured it yet? The trouble is, the word ‘cancer’ acts almost like a collective noun: each cancer is very different and arises in different people for one or more of a huge number of reasons. There are so many mechanisms and potential defects involved in a cell becoming cancerous, and the process over the following months to years that turns the cell into full blown cancer, that to think that we can cure this multifaceted disease with just one biomedical or pharmacological intervention seems somewhat arrogant and misguided. Whilst we know a lot more today than we did even 10 years ago when I stepped into my first lab post, cancer is, and will remain, a complex condition that is likely to stick around for some time.
Whilst working away in my petri dishes, culturing cancer cells and playing around with chemotherapeutic agents, I began reading a wonderful book by Dr David Servan Schrieber who, after an unexpected discovery of a large brain tumour, went on to dramatically outlive his prognosis, his saviour being a huge shift in his diet and lifestyle. Through the power of diet and meditation, Dr Servan Schrieber was able to turn his ‘few months to live’ into 20 years post diagnosis. It was his powerful, research-supported story that got me thinking: nutrition and emotional stress set the scene for cancer’s development and progression but, by addressing this and utilising a few targeted and highly specialised treatment options, a cure for cancer – or certainly a way to keep it in check – may not in fact be so far-fetched!
So what is cancer and why are we all so scared of it?
Every day hundreds of thousands of potential cancer cells are ‘born’ whether due to genetic mutations, DNA defects, changes in methylation or poor apoptotic responses. In most cases these defective, potentially dangerous, cells are noticed either by one of the checkpoints in the cell cycle or by the immune system and rapidly eliminated; however, in what seems to be an increasing number of cases (soon to hit 47% of the population according to Macmillan), these search and destroy mechanisms, or the ones that control healthy cell growth and progression, become defective, allowing cancerous cells to survive. In an environment plagued by exogenous toxins, increased oxidative stress and inflammation, poor nutrient status and high physical and emotional stress, further modifications, mutations and immune suppression leads to increased cell turnover and survival until at some point the tumour is no longer self-sufficient and starts to encroach on and compete for resources from the affected organ.
Until relatively recently, cancer seemed terrifying because we didn’t understand the multifaceted process that turns a single mutated cell into malignant, metastatic cancer. Now that we do, we can target each stage of the process and support the body either in restoring optimal function or enhancing cancer-killing actions. Nutrition and lifestyle interventions, together with targeted biological therapies, therefore have the power to provide a very comprehensive cancer defence strategy. Working with a cancer patient to determine what contributes to their unique cancer-supporting and -encouraging environment and then addressing the underlying dysfunctions, as you would with any client, is therefore a highly useful tool in aiding the fight for remission and survival.
Whilst nearly 50% of the population are expected to get cancer in their lifetime by 2020, approximately 50% of cancers are considered preventable, with poor diet and inactivity considered two of the top risk factors for developing cancer. Thus, as complementary health practitioners you can be confident that optimising someone’s diet, eliminating potential carcinogens from their environment and helping them to be more active are perfectly valid, and highly effective, cancer co-therapies. Professor Robert Thomas of Addenbrookes Hospital, Cambridge – despite being a specialist oncologist – has dedicated his research career to better understanding the role of nutrition and lifestyle in cancer progression and survival. The man behind the highly promising POMi-T research, a micronutrient blend of broccoli, pomegranate, turmeric and green tea, used in prostate cancer patients, has been quoted as saying ”30 minutes of exercise daily is as effective as a second round of chemo”! With Professor Thomas’ work in mind, and in light of the plethora of research supporting various nutrient interventions for cancer prevention, enhancing treatment outcomes and improving post-treatment quality of life and survival time, it is safe to say there is a lot that you can do to make a considerable difference to your clients without needing to panic and become an overnight expert.