Breast Cancer: The Integrative Connection
Breast Cancer. Scary two words that any woman would fear to hear. Breast cancer is a serious condition striking 1 in 8 women. There will be an estimated 246,660 new cases of invasive breast cancer are expected to be diagnosed in women in the U.S., along with 61,000 new cases of non-invasive (in situ) breast cancer. In 2016, there are more than 2.8 million women with a history of breast cancer in the U.S. This includes women currently being treated and women who have finished treatment. So there is a good likelihood that you know someone who has had breast cancer.
The word cancer itself conjures up many different views. After working with many women in my integrative practice over the last 15 years, I have had the opportunity to see firsthand how confusing and frightening it can be. However, in an integrative clinic, we look for the hope and promise of what is possible and how the human body can handle this assault.
I have found that information is power and understanding is comforting, something that many conventional medical practices have forgotten. We know that a person’s outlook is as important to a positive outcome of healing as the treatment itself and knowledge is power.
Understanding how cancer occurs
Our bodies are made up of trillions of cells. Each tissue in our body has different cells that have different instructions and are programmed to act and behave in a certain way. Each cell contains the DNA that holds this programming.
As needed, our bodies will sometimes make new cells to replace old ones or repair damage. To do this, a cell makes an extra copy of all its DNA and then splits into two new cells. Depending on the types of cells, some are replaced rapidly like the skin and other slowly like bone.
Normally when a cell splits, there are protective checks that happen to make sure that the DNA has been copied correctly and the new cells have everything they need to work properly. If a mistake is found, the cells die. This is called apoptosis.
However, if these safety checks fail, the new cells may survive with mistakes in them. Sometimes, a mistake in DNA (known as a mutation) might not cause any problems. However, sometimes this mistake leads to a cell continuing to make new cells, which will grow into a mass known as a tumor.
Since, the new cells are not recognized for destruction they can continue to grow unchecked. In fact, the body systems, seeing new cell growth actually treat tumor cells as normal and will begin to develop a secondary blood supply to “feed” the new cells, thinking they are needed by the body. This is known as angiogenesis or new blood vessel growth. So the biggest challenge with cancer is that it is normal cells behaving abnormally but the body doesn’t understand or know this.
Here are some myths you should understand:
A Few Common Misconceptions about Breast Cancer
- Breast Cancer is a genetic disease. The fact is, only about 5% of all breast cancers are genetic. The highest risks are related to diet, lifestyle, illness, hormone issues, stress and environmental toxins.
- Breast cancer is a NOT preventable. According to the American Cancer Society, 60% of all breast cancers are environmentally related. This means through detoxification and reduction of exposure to estrogens (which I assess and treat in my clinics) and other lifestyle changes, you can significantly lower your risks. Since family history is such a low percentage of all cancers, we know there are numerous lifestyle and environmental links to the development of breast cancer
- A Normal mammogram means there is no Cancer. While the mammogram is still valuable for detecting cancer, it is important to know that most breast cancers take 8-10 years to develop. That means that while you may have had years of negative mammograms, there may be microscopic cells growing that will need to get to a significant size before they will be picked up in your annual screening. In fact, if a woman diagnosed with breast cancer who has diligently gotten their annual mammograms, they have had years of false negatives before it was detected. There are other tools for screening that can improve on the results of a mammogram, alone.
- Mammograms are Harmless. There are clearly risks of mammography that are rarely discussed and not well known by doctors. A recent 700 page report issued by the National Academy of Science confirms what we already know, that cumulative exposure to radiation poses serious health risks. Another study published in 2004 showed that the radiation exposure risk from mammograms may be 5 times higher than previously thought. This means that annual mammogram screening between ages 40-50 years old may increase one’s risk by 50%. This is why the US Preventative Services Task Force moved away from recommending annual mammograms for screening in 2009 to reduce women’s exposure. Again, mammograms save lives so we have to evaluate risk vs. The value.
From my viewpoint, prevention is key. This is also affirmed by Sloane Kettering Cancer Institute and other conventional centers, in theory. As stated, the American Cancer Society agrees that 60% of all breast cancers are environmentally induced and can be avoided. Yet, the funding for prevention of breast cancer is very low. According to an article in Sierra Magazine called Cancer, Inc. The authors conclude that majority of the billions of dollars spent on cancer, of every 100 dollars spent, 99.00 is spent on research regarding treatment while 1.00 is spent on prevention. So, if you are diagnosed with breast cancer, there is innovative cutting edge treatment. However, information on prevention is harder to come by.
As an integrative doctor, certainly, I would much rather prevent a disease. And while there are no guarantees, there is much you can do to reduce your risks of cancer:
First, you have to significantly reduce oxidative stress. Oxidative stress reflects an imbalance in the body’s biological system’s ability to readily detoxify and to repair damage to cells. If this normal process is disturbed it can cause toxic effects through the production of peroxides and free radicals that damage all components of the cell, including proteins, lipids, and DNA. We are surrounded by oxidation producers, including chemicals, pesticides, pollution, fluoridated water, medication, emotional stress just to name a few. So avoiding and eliminating these stressors from the body is critical.
The next step is to increase the body’s antioxidant load. Our body can handle a certain amount of oxidative stress through our antioxidant system. These are substances within our body that inhibit oxidation and free radical damage such as vitamin C and beta carotene.We increase our antioxidants when we eat the right whole, organic foods, drink clean water and exercise to remove toxic waste and circulate the body fluids through actively moving.
I also believe it is possible to improve the body’s detoxification systems through regular cleansing and detoxification programs. One such program I use in my office includes a 2 week program of eating organic fruits and vegetables, lean, hormone free proteins while drinking cleansing shakes that replace vital nutrients that help the liver, kidneys, skin and lymphatic system remove toxins from the body.
Regulating hormones and ensuring proper balance is also critical as exposure to excess estrogens will increase risk of cancer. After properly evaluating the body, we can craft a plan to balance the hormones that is safe and effective and makes you feel great.
Lastly, I also feel that the existing screening programs for cancer and especially breast cancer are lacking. There are a variety of screenings in addition to the biannual mammogram that can detect early risk. This includes: salivary hormone testing to look for proper balance of estrogen and progesterone, urine metabolite tests to detect excessive estrogen production and medical infrared thermography to name a few.
When it comes to thermography screening, I am a big supporter based on having conducted and researched the technology for over 15 years. Many women are confused about what it can and cannot do for them. Doctors have no idea how this technology has improved over the last 2 decades and most dismiss it because they do not understand how it is used as a screening tool. It is by no means a substitute for a mammogram. However, if you are interested in looking at a noninvasive, inexpensive screening tool that could give you information to be used in an integrative medical clinic, thermography is worth a look.
Medical infrared Thermography is a camera that can detect the infrared radiation that is projected by the human body. There are predictable patterns that this camera can image. It can then detect any risks by seeing inflammation that may indicate angiogenesis or the new blood vessel growth that I discussed earlier. For over 20 years, Medical Infrared Thermography has been extensively studied. The overwhelming results concur that as a screening tool, Thermography has over a 90% predictive value of future breast issues. One of the clearest studies tracked a group of 1527 women with, initially normal mammograms and physical exams but abnormal thermograms for 12 years. The study was stopped after only 5 years because 60% of the women had already developed malignancies. Medical Infrared Thermography does not replace the Mammogram. Mammography and Thermography are 2 totally different tools. While Mammography can evaluate structures in the breast, Thermography evaluates the activity that may indicate risks. In some studies, the combination of both screening tools provided a 99% predictive indicator of breast disease. The FDA has recognized Thermography as an adjunct to mammography. I feel that Thermography gives a picture of breast health that mammography may not and it does it safely and effectively. However, diagnostically, mammography has its rightful place.
Now, if you are diagnosed with breast cancer or any cancer for that matter, it can be fear inducing, confusing and you may find yourself shuffled into treatments before even having time to absorb the diagnosis. Through the years I have worked with many women who had different opinions regarding what they wanted to do about their care. Some wanted to treat it all naturally, some chose conventional care only and others integrated the two. This is a big decision and I believe should be made by each individual and their families. What I do know is that to integrate natural care or go fully conventional does not have to be a decision of one over the other. The two medicines fit together quite well. However, finding a practitioner who can navigate between the two is difficult. My experience has been that while most integrative doctors are more than willing to collaborate, many oncologists are not. Some centers such as Sloane Kettering are beginning to integrate natural medicine such as research on medicinal mushrooms and using acupuncture for the side effects of care are now being introduced to patients and I am optimistic that this will grow in the future.
If you decide to use integrative care, it is important to have guidance. There are very specific guidelines for the use of supplements and herbs when using conventional care. Having a practitioner who is familiar with this as well as capable of explaining some of the confusion that often happens is important. I always recommended acupuncture therapy performed by a qualified and trained acupuncture doctor who knows how to work with internal medicine. Most chiropractors and physical therapists who perform acupuncture are only trained in sports medicine at best.
Cancer is an opportunistic disease. It strikes when the body is weakened and conventional care can save your life. But I believe that integrative medical care can help prevent its return, strengthen the body after it has been damaged not only by the cancer but also the aggressive treatments. The statistics of cancer deaths in my opinion are based, generally on a society that eats a poor diet and lives a toxic lifestyle. Few studies, to date, have addressed the outcomes of women with cancer who have lived a life free of chemical, improved their diets and made better life choices regarding stress and exercise. The few that did show significantly reduced recurrence of cancer as compared to other groups. I believe that you can have more control than you think. By incorporating integrative care, you will have the help and support to eliminate risks or have a better outcome if cancer comes to you.
Dr. Kenneth Hoffman, DAOM , L.Ac., CCH, Medical Director, has serviced thousands of patients since opening his practice in 2004. Dr Hoffman is a Doctor of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine as well as a licensed acupuncturist. He has trained in Integrative Oncology at Memorial Sloane Kettering Cancer Center as well as functional medicine. He also hosts “The Natural Medicine Connection”, Fairfield County’s only health talk radio show, on WLAD Danbury (800WLAD on the AM dial), every Saturday, from 10 to 12 p.m.