Today, I am going to tackle Inflammation, the third in what I call the Cancer Control Trio. First in the group is sugar. We talked about sugar – bad – and the vital role it plays in feeding cancer cells and how it uses the insulin response to aid growth. Next we talked about oxygen – good – and how cancer cells thrive in an anaerobic environment (what?anaerobic refers to an oxygen deprived environment) – just remember aerobic (utilizing oxygen) exercise makes cancer cells very unhappy and that is the way we want them.
Unhappy cancer cells get depressed and commit suicide – well kind of. Your body and most chemo drugs aim to get the cell to reprogram its preset cell death function (apoptosis) which the smarty pants cancer cells learn to override. This is an over-simplification, of course, but cancer cells grow too fast and refuse to drop dead on schedule thus damaging health of your vital organs. That is why many chemotherapy drugs aim at affecting DNA in such a way that the cell cannot divide, either healthy or malignant. The fastest growing and reproducing cells in the body are affected the most, and that is why the cytotoxic class of chemotherapy drugs are so effective at reducing the size and quantity of tumor cells, but they can damage healthy cells as well – not a perfect world.
One of the things we can do to aid our doctors treatment is to make our internal environment hostile to the disease and help kill the cancer cells off, by limiting the energy supply with glucose and IGF – insulin-like growth factor (see the Sugar Connection – Parts 1 and 2, The Gods of Convenience)- and creating an oxygen rich environment with exercise (Oxygen, Exercise and Cancer). The final element that we have control over is inflammation which can be good or bad for you depending on the circumstances. Here’s why.
The human machine is a brilliant creation and certainly proof, if there can ever be such a thing, that a divine power intentionally created all of these systems to function and support one another so perfectly. The complexity of the inflammation response/cascade is definitely one example of just how beautifully the body functions.
The inflammation cascade, a series of instanteous reactions the body makes to any damage, keeps us alive. It sends all the right components of our blood to stop a cut from bleeding. It lets you know there is damage to a tooth or mucsle with pain and fixes it all if it can. It gives you super human strength to run from that burning building or fight off the Saber Tooth Tiger. Then the cascade stops itself when its work is complete. But sometimes it doesn’t stop, leaving the body flooded with hormones and neurotransmitters that are meant for short term emergency use only. That’s where stress plays a major role in diseases like cancer, heart disease and other inflammatory illnesses like arthritis.
Strangely the bodies response to stress, that fight or flight feeling, creates many of the same responses as our body’s response to inflammation. We pump adrenaline so our heart rate goes up, cortisol and other steroid levels rise to fight pain and prepare our bodies for the extra energy or strength it will need in the emergency and countless other minute changes all affecting the quantity and quality of blood, blood pressure, heart rate, etc.
Your body is injured in some way. Almost instantaneously, your brain recognizes and assesses the situation and begins the process of sending the extra needed materials to correct the injury. Sticky blood platelets ease the bleeding; blood flow increases to assist the damaged cells to grow and replicate more quickly than usual. Hold it! Don’t cancer cells do that – grow and replicate too quickly. Yes, indeed, and so you see the problem. Just as sticky blood platelets, if they hang around too long, can cause blood clots leading to heart attacks or strokes, increased growth factors can help our little cancer terrorists. The body has created an environment that actually encourages cancer growth.
When the Inflammation Cascade does not stop when the emergency is over but continues because the body is confusing chronic stress with a real emergency, it actually helps the cancer. So a constant state of inflammation which becomes the body’s ’normal’ state as we age, can bring on many age related malfunctions from heart disease to cancer and auto-immune disease.
Stress plays a huge role in the body’s over-response to inflammation. But it is through stress that we can affect and control the bad aspects of chronic inflammation. Acute inflammation can be a life saver but its chronic cousin can be a killer.
This is one reason that baby aspirin regimens are so helpful to heart health and have been shown effective in breast cancer prevention (as reported by the Nurses Health Study in February 2010); aspirin is an anti-inflammatory agent. So if inflammation becomes the norm of an aging body, imagine what the added stress of our everyday modern living does to our health. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Our bodies have their own antidote to all this inflammation. It is the Relaxation Response and that is how we can take control of our bodies response to inflammation and influence cancer risk.
Besides aspirin regimens which may not be good for everyone especially people with ulcers and other bleeding disorders or taking certain medications, controlling stress is the best way we can control inflammation and make those cancer cells unhappy again.
Meditation is one of the most effective ways we have to externally affect the stress that bombards us daily. You cannot make your job demands less or you may lose your income, either situation causes stress. You cannot make your kids behave perfectly or stop worrying about them because you love them. You cannot avoid that crazy person in the bank line or any of that. What you can do is learn techniques to ease the stress. In the next chapter, we will look at some ways, meditation, self hypnosis, aromatherapy and therapeutic massage to name just a few, that will produce the Relaxation Response, the antidote to a chronic Inflammation Cascade.
Until then, here’s hoping this helps even just a little.