Inflammation and Cancer Risk

Dr Tom Jemison

October 2013

Here in the Phoenix area the month of October is greatly anticipated because it signals another conclusion to our hot summers and a transition into the beautiful cooler weather that reminds us of why we love this area.  October is also breast cancer awareness month and it seems that every aspect of our nation is focused on the number one cancer to affect American women.   Over the last several decades there have been significant improvements in breast cancer screening, detection and diagnosis.  Early detection and diagnosis improves patient outcome across the board.  Additionally, implementing preventative and therapeutic changes can substantially affect treatment response and prognosis when a diagnosis of breast cancer is present.

When considering commonalities among preventative and therapeutic interventions we must acknowledge that not all cancers behave the same.  For this reason it is extremely important to discuss medical history, current and past risk factor exposure and family history with your physician.  This information along with proper medical work up will guide treatment strategy.

Known breast cancer risk factors include the following - increasing age, a family history of breast cancer, genetic mutations of the BRCA-1 and BRCA-2 genes, alcohol intake of more than one serving a day, hormone replacement therapies, hormone imbalances,  obesity and radiation exposure - just to name a few. 

Obesity is common risk factor for most cancers and a myriad of other chronic diseases.  Excessive alcohol intake, fast food, high carbohydrate, high sugar, low fruit and vegetable diets contribute to weight gain and obesity.  A major problem with this type of diet is not only the weight gain but also the chronic inflammation that these foods fuel.  Chronic inflammation has been suggested to be one of the major risk factors and causes of cancer. 

Inflammation is a normal cellular and immune system response to aid with tissue healing and infection control.  An example of this process occurs with something like an insect bite.  Initially the cells involved in the area of the bite will signal to the immune system that they have been damaged and disturbed.  The area gets swollen, warm to the touch, red and sometimes itchy.  The immune system responds by sending in white blood cells to clean up and repair the area.  Once resolved, the cells are happy again,  the white blood cells move on and the inflammation goes away.

With sedentary lifestyle and unhealthy eating habits, the inflammatory signals never stop.  Chronic inflammation over time begins having problematic effects and can start affecting normal cellular control  processes which can ultimately lead to cancer.  Reducing chronic inflammation will help reduce risk factors for developing cancer but will also allow for treatments whether conventional, alternative, or both to be more effective.

Modifying diet and lifestyle while incorporating known anti-inflammatory substances should be a significant part of any breast cancer therapy.  Patients cannot rely only on occasional hospital or doctor office interventions to completely treat cancer.  Listed below are some easy to follow recommendations.

Omega 3 fatty acids (EPA and DHA) found in fish oil, flaxseed oil, and walnut oil have excellent anti-inflammatory properties.  Omega 3 fatty acids have also been shown to reduce the risk of breast cancer in pre and post menopausal women.  Taking 1000mg daily of DHA and EPA combined is a good place to start.

Curcumin found in turmeric is an extremely potent anti-inflammatory.  Curcumin has been shown to reduce breast cancer tumor formation and growth.  Studies also show that curcumin helps to reduce chemotherapy resistance in breast cancers.  Taken daily as a spice in foods offers some benefit, also supplementing with curcumin 500mg twice a day is recommended.

Added sugar in the diet greatly increases inflammation and can actually feed cancer cells.  Reducing sugar in the diet will not only reduce inflammation, but will also reduce the fuel for cancer cells.  I recommend adopting a diet high in vegetables, fiber, fruit, healthy oils  and protein intake and greatly reducing or eliminating added sugars, breads, ice cream and sugary snacks.  Reducing or eliminating alcohol intake is also recommended. 

Daily exercise will help to reduce weight and will improve health and well being on many levels.  Exercise increases oxygen in the body and will support proper inflammation modulation.  Patients report less depression, shorter treatment duration, better prognosis and fewer side effects from conventional therapies with regular exercise.  A good start is a brisk walk for at least 15 minutes, enough to elevate the heart rate and increase breathing.  Be sure to consult with your physician concerning appropriate exercises.