My mentor and friend, Dr. Mark Hyman, on the future of cancer care.
Instead of dividing everything into diseases and labels, emerging science is pointing to a different way of thinking about diseases.
We have to treat the system, not the symptom; the cause, not the disease. This completely redefines the whole notion of disease. The landscape of illness is changing.
Conventional medicine is focused on naming diseases based on geography, body location, and specialty. We need to bring focus to the cause or pathway involved. Doctors say you have a liver, kidney, brain, or heart disease. But this approach to naming disease tells you nothing about the cause. It is quickly becoming obsolete as we understand more about the mysteries of human biology.
Treatment in the 21st Century
The problem with conventional cancer treatment is that we look at the disease the wrong way.
Greg Lucier, Chairman of Life Technologies, talked about how thinking about specific cancers is essentially flawed. How we label cancer is no longer synced up with what we know about the origins of cancer. It is no longer synced up with the fact that two people who have cancer with the same name can have two completely different diseases which require different treatments. Just because you know the name of your disease, it doesn’t mean you know what’s wrong with you or what to do about it.
Classifying tumors by body site misses the underlying causes, mechanisms, and pathways involved.
The fact that cancer appears in a given region of the body tells us nothing about why the cancer developed in the first place. It gives us no information about how it manifested in a given patient. Two people with cancers in different parts of the body may have developed it for the same reasons. Similarly, two people may have developed it for different reasons. Historically we have practiced medicine by geography – where a disease occurs in the body. That doesn’t make scientific sense anymore.
Now we have the potential to treat illness by understanding the underlying mechanisms and metabolic pathways.
These and other misconceptions about cancer and cancer treatment are leading to terrifying results. From the perspective of curative and preventive therapy, we have lost the war on cancer. Clinton Leaf explained how fancy statistics manipulate the data to show that cancer deaths are going down, while they are in fact going up. Overall cancer incidence is significantly increasing. Deaths from cancer are also increasing. In 2008, there were 565,000 deaths in the US alone.
One in three people will get cancer in their lifetime.
There is a different way of thinking about how to treat the system, not just the cancer, that holds promise for a proactive approach.
Dr. Anna Barker, deputy director of the National Cancer Institute, explained how new groups of researchers are collaborating to think differently. They are working to understand and treat it as a systemic problem.
The problem with cancer is not the tumor, but the garden in which the tumor grows.
Traditionally, we have focused on late-stage curative care. In doing so, we have missed the thinking and the treatments focused on changing the underlying conditions that led to the condition in the first place. Diet, lifestyle, thoughts, and environmental toxins all interact with our genes to change our health.
Scientific literature is abundant with evidence that diet, exercise, thoughts, feelings, and environmental toxins all influence the initiation, growth and progression of disease.
The 2008-2009 report from the President’s Cancer Panel found that we have grossly underestimated the risk factor from environmental toxins, plastics, and chemicals. They have yet to acknowledge how thoughts, emotions, and overall stress impact that risk.
Consider the fact that 16 percent of all cancers are new, primary cancers in patients who have already had one cancer. They are not classified as recurrences. This means that people are more likely to get a second and independent cancer.
The lifetime risk of of those with the “breast cancer gene” or BRCA1 or 2 is presently 82 percent and increasing every year. Before 1940, the risk for those with this gene was 24 percent.
What changed? Our diet, lifestyle, and environment.
Might these factors be a better place to look for answers on how to address our epidemic?
We can enhance immune function and surveillance through dietary and lifestyle changes. The elimination of carcinogenic compounds can be facilitated by our body’s own detoxification system. We can improve hormone metabolism. We can reduce the carcinogenic effects of too much insulin. Changes in diet and lifestyle coupled with elimination of hormone disruptors can help with detoxification.
We can also alter how our genes are expressed by changing the inputs that control that expression. These inputs are diet, nutrients, phytonutrients, toxins, stress, and other sources of inflammation. We can focus on more generative thoughts that, in turn, create more uplifting emotions.
The future of care lies in finding the right way to personalize treatment according to the individual imbalances in each person.
To your good health,
Mark Hyman, MD