THIS ARTICLE FIRST APPEARED ON GOOP.
While the complexities of a disease like cancer can’t be overstated, preventative medicine—avoiding getting it in the first place—is the vastly preferable option, no matter who you are. At LA’s Be Hive of Healing, the integrative health center founded by Dr. Habib Sadeghi and Dr. Sherry Sami, the focus is primarily on the causes and/or early roots of disease, as opposed to the symptoms that may not surface until much later. Western medicine tends to spend more of its energies on the latter, so here, Sadeghi explores some potential early factors in cancer, highlights potential links (including over-the-counter drugs), and outlines ways to sidestep common behaviors that might prove problematic down the line:
Simple Choices That Can Increase or Decrease Our Cancer Risk
With all the amazing things modern medicine has to offer, it doesn’t have a great track record when it comes to healing chronic disease: We’ve been stuck in a struggle to eradicate the same diseases that have affected many generations before us, with little progress. As a result, medicine has fallen into the pattern of managing symptoms—mostly with pharmaceuticals—rather than eliminating illness. But when we rush to medicate or to operate, our efforts can make matters worse, predisposing us to other diseases in the future. Medical interventions often make permanent changes to a person’s physiological terrain. I see this phenomenon happening quite often with a disease we’ve arguably been struggling with the longest—cancer.
Past Informs the Present
Think of the body as a plot of land where we want to grow a beautiful garden. The success of our effort depends on a lot of variables: What’s the quality of the soil like? Is it rich with minerals or dry and rocky? Is the nitrogen level in the soil high or low? Are we planting the right seeds to grow in the existing climate? Before the land came to us, was it used as green pasture or trash dump? The point is that every defining factor and decision made in the past and present will affect how the land performs in the future, so we must fully understand its condition and how it functions in order for our garden to grow to maximum effect.
Another way to think of the body is as a flowing river of tens of thousands of interconnected, moving parts and processes. Whatever is introduced to the body upstream in our youth—whether it’s surgery, smoking or another drug habit, a sports injury, and so on—will change the functional terrain of the body, and its effects will be felt downstream later in life. Too often, modern medicine mistakes the symptoms of a disease (its downstream effects) for the cause of a disease, which can be rooted much earlier in the past (i.e. further upstream) than anyone realizes. This is why it’s so important to be conscious of the decisions we make about our bodies today, so that we don’t inadvertently put in motion negative conditions that will be felt downstream tomorrow. In fact, some of the simplest choices we make, with hardly a second thought, could be increasing our downstream risk for cancer.
Probably the most common way we alter the terrain of our bodies and expose ourselves to disease downstream is by taking unnecessary antibiotics. It’s well known by now that the proliferation of antibiotics has contributed to the rise of antibiotic-resistant superbugs. Even worse, antibiotics severely alter the physical terrain of the gut. Designed to kill any and all microorganisms without exception, antibiotics cannot distinguish between microbes that are beneficial to us and those that are harmful. The danger of taking antibiotics is that they destroy millions of colonies of beneficial bacteria in our intestines; these beneficial bacteria form the larger part of our immune system. When our good bacteria fall below a certain percentage, they can’t keep the bad bacteria and pathogens at bay, which leads to diseases of all kinds. I’ve had patients with Crohn’s disease and colon cancer who’d been on antibiotics every other month for years. Their stool samples showed hardly any good bacteria at all. Their guts were nearly sterile.
While no cause-effect relationship has been established between antibiotics and cancer, many epidemiological studies have shown a strong correlation between the two. A six-year study in Finland monitored more than three million people between the ages of thirty and seventy-nine who had no history of cancer. Over the course of the study, researchers found that risk for prostate, breast, lung, endocrine, and colon cancer increased with antibiotic use. Those who had zero to one antibiotic prescription during the designated period experienced no increase in risk. Those with two to five prescriptions saw a 27 percent increase, while more than six prescriptions during the time period resulted in a 37 percent increase in cancer risk. (The participants with more than six prescriptions were also 1.5 times more likely to be diagnosed with less common cancers, such as non-melanoma skin, duodenum, pancreas, kidney, bladder, male genitals, and thyroid cancers, as well as myeloma and leukemia.) A study by the National Cancer Institute that followed ten thousand women over seventeen years found that those who took antibiotics for more than five hundred cumulative days (i.e. more than twenty-five prescriptions) doubled their risk for breast cancer. More surprising, women who took anywhere between one and twenty-five prescriptions saw their risk for breast cancer increase an average of 1.5 times over those who took none.