Giving Cancer a Chance

It’s troubling how, in modern society, consistent messaging regarding the connection between unhealthy lifestyle behavior and resulting cancer onset is not broadly and loudly trumpeted across the land.

Alas, the cancer preventi0n moonshot is nowhere on the horizon. Cancer is given chance after chance after chance. The worst part? Cancer is an insatiable opportunist.

More alarming is when those diagnosed with a malignant challenge incorporate zero sensible lifestyle changes specific to diet, movement, and stress reduction.

Then there are others who incorporate healthier lifestyles—including reducing or giving up tobacco usage and alcohol consumption during active conventional cancer therapy—only to revert to old habits when they receive the ‘all clear’ sign from their oncologist.

Continuing the Open Door Policy to Cancer

A recent study in Cancer, pertaining to early-stage breast cancer, revealed the prevalence of unhealthy lifestyle behaviors in women at diagnosis, then one and two years after.

Most of these women had healthier lifestyles at the time of diagnosis than one and two years later. Many of these women had also become less active and had gained weight.

When I read this it stopped me in my tracks and triggered this post.

Though a significant percentage of all malignancies are preventable through healthy lifestyle decisions, no cancer type is 10o% preventable. But in many cases it is much easier, smarter, and cost-effective to prevent disease than to treat—and less stressful and agonizing for patients and their families and caregivers.

To obtain the best outcomes in deep and durable remissions, and highest quality of life, it is essential to change, upon diagnosis and in perpetuity, the biochemical—host terrain—that allows much malignancy to take root.

Learning that some women diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer decrease their level of physical activity, gain weight, and increase smoking and alcohol consumption baffles me—those poor choices are a mystery and anathema to me. After all, early-stage indolent breast cancer is highly curable, although those that have been reading me for a while know that I don’t often talk about ‘cure’; I prefer to emphasize healing, along with promoting comprehensive approaches to prevention.

Unfortunately, there is a scarcity of research which features large groups of cancer survivors, divided into two groups, who have completed conventional therapy:

  • One group following healthy lifestyles (ex., plant-strong diet with limited processed foods and meat, intentional increased movement, stress reduction activities, nonsmokers, socially connected).
  • The other group eating a standard American diet or consuming an all-too typical unhealthy diet, and with a largely sedentary routine.

Comparing these two groups for end points such as progression-free survival, overall survival, and quality of life, is critical. It would help us understand if it’s the drugs and conventional cancer treatments on their own that ensure deep and durable remissions, or if positive behavioral changes, over time—during and after treatment—may potentiate the earlier therapies.

My friend and colleague, Lorenzo Cohen, PhD, is the Richard E. Haynes Distinguished Professor in Clinical Cancer Prevention, and the Director of the Integrative Medicine Program at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. He is co-founder of the Society for Integrative Oncology, and recent co-author of Anticancer Living. I’ve previously written about Dr. Cohen and his mind/body cancer research here.

I recently caught up with Dr. Cohen to ask him the status of his randomized clinical trial: investigating an integrative oncology program for improving cancer-related outcomes in patients with stage II or III breast cancer who are undergoing radiation therapy.

The program consists of: dietary recommendations, physical activity, stress management, social support, and control of environmental contaminants.

The small study hopes to reveal how these various interventions may “modify cancer-related biological processes, influence long-term treatment results, and improve the quality of life of patients”. The study of 160 participants started in June 2013 and will be completed June 2023. Patients will be followed over a four-year period.

Another interesting trial led by Dr. Cohen looks at how comprehensive lifestyle change works in preventing breast cancer. The program features a similar set of interventions as the above study, and focuses on patients who may be at risk for breast cancer. This pilot trial of 60 patients began in April 2018 and will be completed September 2022.

Dr. Cohen’s research is critical because there are so few multi-modality integrative medicine studies focused on cancer prevention, and cancer free progression and overall survival for those having undergone conventional cancer treatment.

These are small studies. There is little to no commercial interest in funding larger studies because it’s difficult to develop and protect intellectual property regarding commercialization of products connected to, say, yoga, veggies, and meditation. That Dr. Cohen is funded for this type of research through private organizations is an important step forward.

However, the National Cancer Institute (part of NIH), which should be a core funding source, continues to miss important opportunities. Reviewers—the funding ‘deciders’—heretofore have not supported the investigation of stress management as part of diet and exercise study design.

As we await the outcomes of these studies…

Solely Depending on Anticancer Drugs and Other Treatments

Conventional standard of care is often critical and necessary. However, overreliance on conventional treatments alone is likely a losing hand even though novel, targeted drugs are fast improving, as are surgical resections and new technology—hardware and software—enabling even more targeted, precision radiation therapy.

We must do our job—before diagnosis (aka prevention), during active therapy, and throughout survivorship—to better influence and control cancer outcomes. We must protect the host at all times.

Cancer is conniving, deceptive, and opportunistic. We must never give it a chance.   

Photo credit: BigstockPhoto.com/MoiraM