Gripping, heart-wrenching, compelling and thoughtful. Those were my reactions as I read through Angelina Jolie's journey through cancer prevention and management. Faced with a strong family history of ovarian cancer, we all know her courageous decision just a few years ago to have a double mastectomy. Almost 21,000 cases of ovarian cancer are diagnosed, and approximately 14,000 women die annually from this disease. These are sobering statistics facing women today. (1)
I remember thinking then as I do now, "Wait, she may still get cancer." Her recent opinion piece confirmed that feeling as she clearly writes about this being a struggle for women everywhere. In my office, I often meet women at varying points in their journey with cancer. The questions are sometimes the same and the fear recognizable. "Will I get cancer?" "What are my risks?" "Is my family's story, my mother's, my sister's, my aunt's going to be mine?" I watch women every day battle for answers to these questions, and I can't blame them because we all want the best information to make the best decisions.
As I work with women across the country, I have learned that preventing cancer and having a wellness roadmap is not just about surgery, radiation and chemotherapy, though these are important. You see, there is both a structure to cancer, like tumors, polyps, and masses. In the medical community, we are very good at debating the strategies to handle cancer as a physical mass or structure. Yet what often gets neglected is the chemistry of cancer. Cancer is typically not a sudden diagnosis -- although it may feel that way at the time -- but it typically is a gradual illness, one that is inflammatory and mired in the crossroads of genetics, immune signaling and detoxification.
I spend a lot of time with my patients trying to help them understand their own chemistry, what might cause their genes to signal cancer and what they can do about it. The chemistry of cancer is rooted in inflammation, poor detoxification, and hormone changes and imbalances. Each of these concepts, in turn, comes with a list of markers that need to be evaluated in women regularly, especially women with such a strong family history of cancer. For those women touched by Angeline Jolie's journey or who just struggle with the cancer questions, here are my suggestions for understanding the chemistry of cancer.
1. Understand Your Family History
Your family history is the window to your health but not the final verdict. If you have a strong history of cancer in your family, routine screening is mandatory, not optional. Mammograms, paps, CEA markers, genetic markers, including BRACA and MTHFR, should all be a part of a yearly workup.
2. Understand Your Hormones
Women and health care providers spend so much time on hormone management, but so many diseases flare when hormones are out of balance or not being detoxified effectively. If you know your family history is peppered with a cancer story, check your hormones yearly and make sure the metabolites of hormones are not building up. These are your warning signs that something in your chemistry is not quite right. (2)
3. Understand Inflammation
Inflammation may be at the root of ALL cancers. In our practice, we check inflammation markers every six months to a year to make sure we understand where our patients stand with inflammation. Inflammation can trigger the immune signaling of cancer or the activation of cancer causing genes. The most common sources of inflammation are stress, poor digestive health, infections and hormone imbalances. (3)
4. Understand Detoxification
There are four key organs of detoxification: the kidneys, liver, colon, and skin. If these organs are working inefficiently and cannot filter our food, environmental contaminants or hormones well, then we can create a chemistry of acidity and inflammation that can welcome cancer development. Think about these organs, not just cancer, when thinking prevention.
The structure and chemistry of cancer are not to be taken lightly. Angelina Jolie's story of courage brings to light the perplexing journey that is common to many women around the world as we all fight to stay healthy for our loved ones and make a difference. (4)