Cancer affects millions each year, and its consequences can be devastating. But do the experts agree on what causes cancer and what you can do to prevent it? Here, we speak with three different experts from three different fields on their perspective. Listen in.
Farah Hillou, Nutritionist
What causes cancer from a nutrition perspective? Are there any warning signs to look out for?
Cancer biology is complex, and our understanding of the carcinogenic process is continuously evolving. What is considered a simple biological process of cellular division and growth can quickly turn into a chaotic and complex illness. At the same time, we can support our body’s natural ability to protect and heal itself through our diet, lifestyle, and the external environment. However, dysregulation in key processes in the body, including an impaired immune system, hormone imbalances, insulin resistance and metabolic dysfunction, and an imbalance in the gut microbiome can all impact our internal terrain and set the stage for cancer development.
While it is often difficult to identify the single factor that caused cancer, we can identify certain cancer-causing agents and cancer-promoting activities that promote the development and spread of cancer. Modifiable risk factors include obesity, dietary habits, lifestyle habits, and exposure to environmental toxins.
Can a healthier diet prevent cancer? What should and shouldn’t we be eating?
Dietary factors that have been found to increase the risk of cancer include high intake of refined sugar, excessive intake of carbohydrate rich foods, increased consumption of alcohol, and high intake of meat products. These foods may weaken the immune system, promote inflammation, affect blood sugar balance and insulin resistance, and trigger the release of cancer-promoting hormones.
On the other hand, phytonutrient-rich functional foods contain bioactive compounds that have strong cancer-fighting properties. Powerful bioactives include but are not limited to: capsaicin (peppers), 6-gingerol (ginger), curcumin (turmeric), ellagic acid (pomegranates), catechins (green tea), resveratrol (berries, red grapes), allicin (garlic) and sulforaphane (cruciferous vegetables).
How can we avoid inadvertently exposing ourselves to cancer-causing agents?
A healthy environment supports optimal cellular function. On the other hand, exposure to smoke, herbicides and pesticides in our food, genetically modified crops, beauty care products with parabens and sulfates, and cleaning products that contain chlorinated hydrocarbons, chloroform, and other toxic compounds can all contribute to DNA damage and oxidative stress. Purchasing organic food, refraining from smoking, and choosing organic products can drastically help reduce the toxic burden on our body. The Environmental Working Group is a great resource to use for guidance when choosing cleaner, non-toxic products.
How can a nutritionist support cancer patients and complement mainstream treatments?
Dietitians and nutritionists are in a position to support individuals along the cancer-care continuum through diagnosis, treatment, and survivorship. They can help support weight balance, address nutritional deficiencies, support appetite and other side effects during therapy, and develop personalised nutritious meal plans to optimise the body’s natural processes. Dietitians/nutritionists practise with empathy, ethics, and honesty, and play a key role in the patient’s multidisciplinary care team to use evidence-based guidelines for the best interest of the patient.
Dr. Shadan Naji, Dermatologist at Dr. Kayle Aesthetic Clinic
From your perspective, what causes cancer – specifically skin cancer? Are there any warning signs to look out for?
Cancer can occur anywhere on the skin, but the fundamental trigger is sun exposure – frequently being affected by sunburn during childhood and throughout our adult life will put us at greater risk to develop skin cancer. The biggest warning sign to look out for is the appearance of new pigmented spots. If such spots appear, observe them carefully and seek a dermatologist’s opinion. You will definitely need expert advice if these spots change in colour, size, or become itchy or bleed. I recommend that patients with fair skin have an annual check-up with a dermatologist every year, while darker-skinned patients can have a check-up every two years.
How much SPF should we be using?
The advice now is to wear SPF 50 and cover the face and exposed areas of the skin with sun block thoroughly and regularly throughout the day.
Are there specific times of the day when it’s better to stay indoors to prevent skin cancer?
Yes. If you can, avoid the peak hours of the sun’s radiation, which are between 10am and 4pm.
How much should we cover up to protect against the sun’s harmful rays? Are some fabrics better than others?
I would recommend wearing a thin, white material covering all exposed areas when outside. A light colour such as white will not absorb heat. In terms of materials, avoid nylon and choose natural fabrics such as linen and cotton. The right clothing is an effective protection measure against the sun’s rays.
What’s your take on the debate around aluminum in antiperspirants causing cancer?
There is still research being done around this topic. In some cases, dermatologists may recommend that their patients use medical antiperspirants that have aluminum as a treatment for sweating – these are perfectly safe to use under the supervision of an expert dermatologist. However, as a precaution, you should not use aluminum-based antiperspirants indefinitely.
Are there any other practices or precautions that we can take to prevent cancer?
The most important thing is to use effective sun protection – and apply it regularly – from an early age to avoid getting sunburnt. You should also avoid sunbathing.
Soniyaa Kiran Punjabi, Alternative Medicine Practitioner
and Founder of Illuminations
What causes cancer from an alternative healing perspective? Are there any warning signs to look out for?
Cancer can be caused due to various factors, but it is 90% lifestyle choices and only 10% genetics. It is a result of unconscious and conscious choices that we make, which are rooted in our thoughts, emotions, energy levels, and physical body. Doctors estimate that 80% to 90% of all health problems are caused or aggravated by stress. It is this stress that also influences us to make harmful lifestyle choices. For example, we might start smoking because it relieves us from stress. We may gravitate towards alcohol and other addictions to fill a void. We may lack a deeper self-connection and mindfulness to the present moment, and therefore be ignorant to the environment we live in and the toxicity we subject ourselves to.
The earliest warning signs would be changes in our overall energy level, sleep cycle, appetite, and any unfamiliar lumps or warts around the body. Again, the more conscious and present we are, the more we are likely to notice these signs. When we are all consumed by past worries, thoughts, and task lists, we forget to notice these signs. The body is always communicating with us. The question is: are we really listening?
The mind-body connection has been linked to some diseases. Is that the case with cancer?
Whilst there is enough evidence to suggest that our emotions affect both hormones and immune function, the link between the mind-body connection in relation to cancer is far less clear and remains invalidated by science. What has been proven is that many alternative healing modalities that focus on an integrative approach can improve our well-being by healing our thoughts, emotions, and energy levels through the likes of hypnosis, cognitive behavioural therapy, acupuncture, meditation, and breath work.
Do you think that alternative treatments can make our body more resilient and resistant to illness?
Opting for alternative healing approaches to resolve stress or imbalance in the body helps individuals identify the root cause of this stress and release it in order to prevent these imbalances from seeping into our physical, emotional, and mental well-being. Most complementary or alternative approaches treat the person as a whole –body, mind, and energy – as opposed to only the physical body. As the saying goes, prevention is better than cure.
How can alternative therapy support cancer patients and complement mainstream treatments?
Most qualified and responsible alternative/complementary practitioners would never dismiss or negate the efficacy of allopathic/medical solutions if the issue is rooted deep in the physical body, such as major illnesses like cancer, heart ailments, and other such life-threatening diseases. However, alternative therapy can help when an individual is relying on daily medicine that causes damage through dependency on strong dosages.
For example, we have noticed that practicing deep breathing techniques and tools like emotional tapping have helped several of our clients reduce the side effects of chemotherapy. Every approach has an important contribution towards the overall well-being of an individual, therefore it is important to continue undergoing medical treatment alongside complementary care. Some of the benefits that we have seen of alternative treatment include:
- Reducing the side effects of strong medication.
- Providing solutions through natural methods to reduce pain with minimal side effects.
- Aiding physicians by preparing the individual to enhance the healing process and enabling the individual to return to a state of wellness.
- Creating a sense of peace and harmony within the individual so that the current challenge can be met and handled in a positive manner, thereby making the journey towards health and peace of mind less traumatic.