“It Runs in My Family” is not a Death Sentence
Recently I had a visit with a longtime patient. She went through the ringer, having had a breast cancer scare. While she was recalling the ordeal she went through, one thing really stood out to me: every provider (she had seen multiple doctors, technicians, and specialists) started each conversation with, “Does breast cancer run in your family?”
What does “it runs in my family” actually mean?
Let me tell you a story (a true story) of an American Indian tribe, named the Pima Indians. The Pima Indians were a nomadic group living near New Mexico for hundreds of years, before the “white man” coming to this country. These hardy people lived in an incredibly harsh climate in the desert. They had very little food (living off the roots and berries, and any animals they could find) and very little water. The temperatures were incredibly hot and these people lived in tents (with no air conditioning). Yet, despite the climate and the harsh conditions, the average life span of the Pima Indian was 77 years. Someone observing these people would say that they must have had “warrior” genes to survive in such a climate.
Let us look at the Pima Indians today. They have an average life span of 44 years, an obesity rate of 85%, and a diabetes rate of 85%. They are now mostly living on reservations and eating the Standard American Diet (SAD). When one of these poor folk goes to the doctor and asks why he’s he has high blood pressure, does the doctor reply it is genetic? Did this “run in the family” a few generations ago? Alternatively, is this a problem of their genes not matching their environment? The real problem with the Pima Indians today is that their genetic makeup is such that they need to be eating roots and berries and not eating the Standard American Diet (SAD). What is the common denominator causing such rampant disease in the Pima Indian population? That common denominator is likely insulin resistance. High insulin levels are the root cause of obesity, diabetes and heart disease in a large percentage of cases.
Now certainly, there are genetic pre-dispositions that contribute to why you may get a disease such as cancer. However, genetics are not the only reason and are probably not the most important reason why you may develop cancer. So what do you do with if you have a family history of cancer? Should you give up and figure that is your destiny? Alternatively, should you be more proactive?
How to be proactive when cancer “runs in your family”
I have met women, whom cancer runs in her family, that have tested positive for the BRCA1 & BRCA2 genetic mutation. Sadly, some of these women, whom have tested positive, have undergone “preventative” surgeries such as double mastectomy and/or oophorectomy (removing ovaries and fallopian tubes). How can these invasive measures be preventative when the National Breast Cancer Foundation notes that even “such preventative or prophylactic surgeries decrease the risk of developing breast cancer, they don’t eliminate the risk entirely”?
Breast Cancer Screening does not Alter Risk for Developing Breast Cancer
Women are advised to monitor their breast health in order detect breast cancer as soon as possible. For example, many women are encouraged to get annual mammograms at starting age 40. Some women with a family history of breast cancer are recommended annual mammograms at an earlier age. Some women are recommended to have prophylactic surgery if their risk for breast cancer is high enough.
These measures, such as mammography, clinical exam palpating for lumps, or any other visualization technique (ultrasound, MRI, thermography) may identify breast cancer at an earlier stage, but they do not reduce your risk of the disease. You could even make the case that routine mammography potentially increases your risk because of ionizing radiation exposure into sensitive breast tissue. Interestingly, clinical breast exams are NOT recommended by the American College of Physicians, The American Cancer Society and the American College of Family Practice.
What are some holistic, preventative (metabolically directed) ways of reducing your chances of developing breast cancer?
- Go to your doctor and measure your sex, adrenal, and thyroid hormones to make sure that you are not suffering from some sort of hormonal imbalance. For example high estrogen and low progesterone levels can increase your breast cancer risk. Hypothyroidism and excess cortisol encourage cancer growth.
- Your doctor should also be checking your blood sugar levels, and your insulin levels. Chronically high blood sugars lead to chronically high insulin levels, which lead to insulin resistance, and obesity. Obesity and insulin resistance are huge factors that stimulate cancer growth.
- Avoid a diet with excessive carbohydrates and sugars. Even natural sugars, found in fruit can contribute to high sugar levels, high insulin levels and hence risk of breast cancer and other chronic diseases.
- Instead of consuming large quantities of carbohydrates, eat plenty of healthy saturated fats, which are better metabolized, and do not raise your insulin levels. Saturated fats are relatively inert (unreactive) making these fats a wonderful fuel source.
- Unsaturated fats, on the other hand, are highly reactive and form many pro-inflammatory substances in your body (prostaglandins and leukotrienes). Avoid vegetable oils, seed oils, margarine, synthetic meat products containing these pro-inflammatory oils. These toxic oils damage your mitochondria, altering how you can derive energy from oxygen and causing a tissue acidosis. This acid tissue, low oxygen state feeds cancer growth.
- Get plenty of natural sunlight. Spend at least 30 minutes outside every day. Full spectrum, natural light during the day reduces your risk for breast cancer (and uterine, ovarian, cervical, lung, colon and many other cancers) Natural full spectrum light also helps many vital functions in your body including your immune system, your circadian rhythm, mood, hormone balance bone density and many other vital processes. Additionally, natural sunlight is an important source of vitamin D.
- Have your vitamin D levels checked. Vitamin D is vital to your immune system health. There are 2 forms of vitamin D that should be checked, the 25 Hydroxyvitamin D (storage form of vitamin D) and the 1,25 DiHydroxy-vitamin D (active form of vitamin D, also known as calcitriol). Insufficient vitamin D is a big risk factor for cancer.
- Get plenty of sleep at night. Proper sleep habits are vital to your health. Your body requires a minimum of 7-8 hours of sleep each night in a darkened room. You need enough sleep to provide the necessary time for your body to fulfill processes of regeneration for optimal performance. Proper sleep-wake cycles are crucial for your normal, healthy circadian rhythm. Disturbances in your circadian rhythm will significantly distort downstream hormonal balance and increase your cancer risk.
A holistic approach to treating someone with a family history of cancer
Back to my patient (who I will refer to as Gloria) from earlier. While Gloria does not have a family history of breast cancer, she does have some metabolic risk factors for breast cancer. Let us review Gloria’s past medical history and clinical findings so that we can explore her situation in a metabolically directed fashion.
I first met Gloria about seven years ago. She had a long history of irregular cycles that began when she started menstruating at age 14. Her well-intentioned doctors had treated her with birth control pills and her cycles normalized.
Gloria had many symptoms related to her underlying hormonal imbalances, including headaches, chronic fatigue, seasonal allergies and asthma. She also wanted to have children and get off her birth control pills. She had symptoms consistent with excess estrogen for decades. Gloria while being very health conscious had nonetheless been consuming too many carbohydrates, and not enough saturated fat and cholesterol in her diet. When I tested her metabolically, we found that she was overly systemically alkaline, had excessive parasympathetic nervous system activity and was in a chronic catabolic state. Her labs revealed high estrogen and low progesterone. Gloria took the proper steps to improve her diet and I put her on some special supplements to lower her estrogen, decrease her parasympathetic tone, reduce her catabolic state and reduce her excess alkalinity. Her symptoms improved dramatically over the ensuing weeks with resolution of fatigue, reduction in frequency and severity of her headaches, and lessening of her asthma and allergy symptoms.
A few months later, Gloria got pregnant and eventually gave birth to a beautiful, healthy boy (John). A few months after giving birth, Gloria got pregnant again! She had another beautiful healthy boy (Bob). Subsequently, while Gloria was breastfeeding Bob, she felt a lump in her breast. Gloria was very concerned about her breast lump and went to see her gynecologist. Fortunately, after an exhausting battery of ultrasounds, mammograms, biopsies, and multiple specialists, Gloria’s doctors concluded that she had a fibroadenoma (a benign mass) brought on by the surge in her hormones, because of having back-to-back pregnancies.
Gloria is at risk for developing future fibroadenomatous breast disease if she is not careful. However, she can avoid future problems by keeping a healthy diet, maintaining hormonal balance and keeping her metabolic imbalances under control. Despite taking care of two young boys, and working, Gloria has been experiencing good health and able to deal with the stress of her situation.
Your health is a continuous moving target. In Gloria’s case, experiencing two pregnancies in such a short amount of time put major stress on her body. We are continuing to monitor her hormone levels and metabolic states. She is maintaining a truly preventative diet and lifestyle.
If you are someone with a history of breast cancer, or any cancer for that matter, it is important to ensure you carefully address hormonal and metabolic balance. Just because a disease “runs in your family” does not mean you will get this disease. An intelligently designed, individualized, metabolically directed approach can give you the GREATEST chance at evading or minimizing a cancer diagnosis.
Are you interested in learning more about metabolically directed wellness? We believe that all chronic degenerative disease states are the result of excessive stressors on your immune, neurological and endocrine systems. We work to indentify and minimize these stressors to get to the root cause of your problems. True cancer prevention is possible and will enhance your overall health and your life. Contact Dr. Rothman by calling 732-268-7663 to schedule a consultation