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The Most Common Cause of Cancer (Hint: it’s NOT genetics)

Want to know the secret to prevent nearly ALL forms of cancer? Yes, it is possible. There is one overarching trigger for most cancers. You are about to learn WHAT it is and HOW to avoid it.

Each year we take a break from the science of education and update you on two devastating diseases likely to impact you and/or your loved ones. Why? You cannot be at your best when your “bigger job” is fighting for your life. This month the topic is cancer; July will be about Alzheimer’s disease. These are serious, and the science and valuable things you’ll learn will be powerful.

Lean in – you’ll need this information to protect yourself and your family from the #2 cause of death: cancer. Yes, you can prevent it, and I’ll show you how.

DISCLAIMER: Before I begin any comments about health, I am required by law to make a disclaimer: “The following comments are not meant to diagnose or treat any disease, nor have they been approved by the FDA.” (By the way, an oncologist would have to make a similar disclaimer.)

The Research

All cancers are sourced by one of two things: genetics (DNA carries the genetic marker) or environmental factors (which trigger epigenetic changes). “Epigenetics” is the recent field of science that shows that environmental factors (toxins, stressors, food, trauma, drugs, etc.) can influence our genes and the impact gets passed on to our offspring. In short, they are a huge factor.

For example, there is now compelling evidence that shows offspring are affected by maternal parental trauma exposures that occurred before their birth,and even prior to their conception. Famines, war, family violence, and the Holocaust have all been shown to have adverse effects into the children of the following generations (Yehuda & Lehrner, 2018; Bowers & Yehuda, 2015; Yehuda, Bell, Bierer, & Schmeidler, 2008).

Many people still believe that cancer is purely genetic, or just a result of really bad luck. If that were the case, we should just sit back and accept the hand we were dealt or hope for a lucky draw. For the vast majority of cancer diagnoses that is simply not true.

Genetics and “bad luck” account for a very small percentage of all cancer diagnoses. Most cancers (depending on which type) have a shockingly low 2-10% heritability. That means that most cancers are a result of environmental factors (or lifestyle choices).

In fact, did you know that the heritability of breast cancer from your mother is less than 2%? If this sounds surprisingly low, let me explain.  People get fooled into thinking it is genetic, but in fact it is most often a combination of environmental factors creating familial trends (Anand, et al., 2008).

If you ask yourself, “Why is this not already in mainstream medicine? The answer is, that most (not all) oncologists do know this. But mainstream medicine can’t “sell” better lifestyle habits – no profit there. Big Pharma and hospitals want to stay in business. It is much easier to sell drugs that they say might reduce your chances of getting cancer (while they raise risks for other problems).

So, why is the risk so high (25-28%) for a female getting breast cancer if her mom had it (if the genetics are only a 2% risk?)

Girls often grow up in the same house as their mother. They eat the same kinds of foods, breathe the same air, and get exposed to the same molds, toxins, and noise stress. They might use the same cleaning products (bleaches, sprays, toxins, etc.), the same personal care products (creams, hair color, deodorant, toothpaste, etc.) and they can take on similar beliefs and attitudes.

In short, females are often immersed in their mom’s environment. Because this is the environment they grow up in, they often continue these habits into adulthood. Mom cooked with ____ oil, so that’s just what I use too. Mom taught me to clean the toilet with bleach, so I do the same. It is these lifestyle choices and environmental factors that lead to most familial trends in breast cancer, NOT genetics.

Scientists are frantically trying to solve the cancer mystery – If it’s not all genetic, where is it coming from, and how do we fight it? The last decade of cancer research has been hovering over one key trigger that is connected to all forms of cancer: INFLAMMATION.

What is inflammation?
Inflammation is the body’s natural “fire department” response from your immune system to fight off adverse events – bacteria, viruses, wounds, accidents, and toxins that can cause illness.

There are two kinds of inflammation – one shouldn’t worry you too much, and the other is associated with ALL chronic disease.

If you’ve ever stubbed your toe, got a paper cut, or fought off the flu, you are very familiar with acute inflammation. This form of inflammation is temporary and often accompanied by swelling, redness, fever, chills, pain, or fatigue. Something is “off” in your body and your immune system is in “fight mode” trying to defend itself from the evil intruder. When your immune system is strong, and the threat is not too severe, the source of ailment is neutralized and you are back in your groove within a short amount of time.

Where you run into life-threating problems is when your body’s natural inflammation defense system is overwhelmed (trauma), overactive for too long, or when there actually isn’t an intruder to defeat.  Wait, what? Why would the immune system go into action if there is no detected foreigner?

Well, the short answer is there are many lifestyle choices people make that fool the body into thinking it is being attacked. A morning cup of sugar (with a bit of coffee added) is treated similarly as an acute virus – attack! The immune system’s pathogen-fighting cells go to work and attack your healthy cells and tissues.

This chronic inflammation is the result of the immune system being in constant “fight mode.” Over time, chronic inflammation directs your disease-fighting cells to attack innocent, healthy cells, tissues, organs, and systems throughout your body, eventually creating disease that they were initially trying to fight off. Two examples of chronic inflammation producers are chronic stress (is that you?) or taking in toxins (alcohol, smoking, sugar, white bread, pastries, candy, etc.).

And every resource that your body has to use to fight inflammation must be “stolen” from being used elsewhere in your body. This larceny is a result of your body doing “triage” (emergency efforts) that never quit. That 60mg of vitamin C you thought was enough each day? Forget it; you’ll need 10X that amount if your body is doing triage (Ames, 2006).

This imbalance can lead to autoimmune diseases such as multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, Parkinson’s and lupus. Chronic inflammation is also linked to the deadliest chronic illnesses of our time: heart disease, diabetes, and yes, cancer.

All of this is actually great news! (Well, I think you know what I mean.)This means that you and I have some CHOICES, to a large degree, when it comes to preventing cancer. The majority of all CANCERS ARE PREVENTABLE! Then why are we still losing the war on cancer?

Because some people (NOT you) are unwilling to make adjustments to their lifestyle and environment to reduce/eliminate chronic inflammation and PREVENT most cancers. Many have been told that their only cancer choices are cut, burn, or poison the cancer. But let’s back up the time machine and start BEFORE cancer has a chance in you. Here are 5 lifestyle adjustments you can make to reduce chronic inflammation and protect yourself from cancer.

5 Ways to Reduce Chronic Inflammation, thus, Protecting Yourself From Cancer

1.   Sleep

Here is an idea you might like that reduces inflammation – get some sleep! Yes, poor sleep quality is linked to increase cancer risk (Xiao, Arem, Pfeiffer, & Matthews, 2017).

The average adult should be logging in 7-9 hours of zzz’s every night. Anything less (or even more) than that and you are inviting unwelcomed inflammation into your system. You likely already know how the body works to heal itself during sleep. Limiting that time can deplete your body’s resources for fighting off foreigners.

But how does a lack of sleep lead to inflammation? Sleep is regulated by circadian rhythms that cause you to drift between phases of sleep and wakefulness throughout the day. When your circadian rhythms are out of sync (newborn babies, jetlag from travel, etc.) your sleep patterns suffer. These same circadian rhythms are also responsible for regulating your immune system (Scheiermann, Kunisaki, & Frenette, 2013).

So, when your circadian rhythms are disrupted, your immune function is also compromised. Even one night of binge-watching Game of Thrones till the wee hours of the morning can trigger inflammation processes in the body (Irwin et al., 2008). Make it a habit of getting less (or more) sleep than you need and you may be in danger of elevating CRP levels – an indicator of chronic inflammation (Irwin, Olmstead, & Carroll, 2016).

What is making it so hard to get sufficient sleep every night? Maybe it’s the pile of dishes in the sink, the stack of papers to grade, or your Game of Thrones addiction that keeps you from going to bed on time. Keep things in perspective. Which sounds more painful to you: being cut open (surgery), poisoned (chemotherapy), or burned (radiation) OR … not knowing whether your favorite GOT character Daenerys Targaryen … (no spoilers here).

Going to bed at the same time and waking up at the same time every day reinforces healthy circadian rhythms, that in turn supports healthy immune function including inflammation. Set an alarm on your phone for 30 minutes before bedtime to turn off all your screens (phones, tablets, laptops, etc.) and head off to dreamland where you’ll be dreaming of living a long, healthy life and playing with your grandkids.

  1. Reduce Your Stress

Just like inflammation, there are different levels of stress – some good, some not so good. All stress is generated by your brain as a response to a perception of a loss of control of a person or situation. Stop thinking that your students stress you out. They don’t – you do. Stop thinking that your colleagues or partner stress you out. They don’t – you do. Only when you choose to “own your body and your life” can you get them both back. You are in charge of the stress you feel.

Acute stress can be good for the body (more on this in a minute) and the brain (attentional focus increases with the acute stress of an exam). Chronic stress, on the other hand, impairs your body’s capacity to fight inflammation. How? When you experience stress, cortisol is released, and your body jumps into action. You pay attention better, build more muscle in a workout, etc.

Chronic stress leads to hyper levels of cortisol over an extended period of time. The body becomes less sensitive to the constant beratement of cortisol and is unable to regulate the inflammation, eventually leading to a breakdown of the immune system (Cohen, 2012). In walks a virus and, bam!, you catch it.

If you are an over-scheduled adult or have an over-scheduled child, do yourself a favor and aim to under-schedule yourself and your family. Cut back on an activity or two. This will create space and time in your life for things that will help you recover enough to fight chronic inflammation due to stress trying to sneak its way into your system. After watching just ONE more episode of Game of Thrones, spend those 30 minutes of screen-free time in any of these evidence-based stress reducers: meditation, journaling, praying, breathing exercises, spending time talking and connecting with a loved one.

  1. Exercise

Exercise does, in fact, cause acute inflammation as muscles experience acute stress and strengthen. When done in moderation, this is good. When you exercise, your muscles release a protein called Interleukin 6 (IL-6), a powerful anti-inflammatory (Morettini, Palumbo, Sacchetti, Castiglione, & Mazzà, 2017).

Getting into a regular exercise routine is a powerful anti-inflammatory habit. High-intensity training has strong benefits. Engage in bouts of high-intensity exercise (1-4 min.), with short recovery time (<60 sec.), followed by all-out high-intensity bouts again (and again) up to about 12-15 min. Do this routine for 3-5X a week (Weston, Taylor, Batterham, & Hopkins, 2014).

Or, just find some kind of physical activity you love (power walks, swimming, cycling, running, etc.) and commit to doing it 3-6 times a week for at least 10-15 minutes (Dallal et al., 2012). In addition, make the small adjustments in your lifestyle to move your body more. Take the stairs instead of the escalator. Walk or bike to the grocery store to grab those few items you need for your weekend dinner party.

Create a family tradition of a Sunday afternoon walk around the neighborhood. Stop driving around the parking lot cursing the parking gods for not granting you your wish of front row parking. Park the car and enjoy the walk, knowing you are reducing inflammation and protecting yourself from cancer.

  1. Eat an Anti-Inflammatory Diet

Let’s keep this as simple as possible. Some foods reduce inflammation; others can increase it. Want to protect yourself from cancer by avoiding chronic inflammation? Examine your eating habits and do one of the following:

  • Eat more foods that fight off inflammation (the good)
  • Avoid the foods that increase inflammation (the bad)
  • Take supplements that fight off chronic inflammation (the powder/pill)

Foods that decrease inflammation

Eat plenty of fruits and colorful vegetables. For protein, enjoy some nuts, legumes, white meats (including cold water fish high in omega 3s such as salmon), olive oil, and foods high in fiber. Stock up on sweet potatoes, watermelon, colored berries (like blueberries… frozen is OK), colorful vegetables (such as peppers, cauliflower, broccoli, kale, etc.), green tea, olive oil, coffee, dark chocolate (60-65% is best), plain Greek yogurt, mangos, apples, and papayas.

If these foods don’t make your mouth water, welcome to the club. Most people find these food decisions too hard and you see many adults still eat like a little kid. Many people tell me, “Yeah, but broccoli tastes terrible!” Yes, you are right – it does. How do you think cancer “tastes?” Steam your broccoli and cauliflower and drip some honey on them. I do this 3-4X times a week.

Your goal is to keep your body at top biological functioning. That means enhancing the health of your mitochondria, strengthening your anti-oxidants, and the overall robustness of your immune systems.

Foods that increase inflammation

Reduce your sugar consumption. The average sugar consumption in the USA is 94 grams a day, or over 75 pounds a year (Ervin & Ogden, 2013). Cancer LOVES sugar. It feeds off of it, literally, and helps the cancer to grow. Doctors actually give patients pure glucose linked to a radioactive dye to locate tumors in the body. Those sugar-loving cancer cells suck up the sugary marker and thus glow brighter than the other tissue, helping the scanning device to see the cancer cells. Stop feeding the cancer beast.

Other foods that boost chronic inflammation are processed foods, fried foods, trans fats, excessive red meat, white breads and grain, alcohol, and tobacco.

Make the empowering choice to cut any tobacco habit. Using tobacco increases your risk of developing at least 14 different types of cancer. It also accounts for about 25–30% of all deaths from cancer and 87% of deaths from lung cancer (Anand et al., 2008).

Supplements Can Help, Too

Not a huge fan of fish, blueberries, or sweet potatoes? Bummer. You can still reduce chronic inflammation with well-chosen supplements. In fact, I believe it’s extremely difficult to get all (or even some) of your perfect nutrients from your daily diet alone. By using the correct amounts of the right supplements, you may reduce your chances of cancer.

First, here’s some key background. Many researchers have proposed that proteins, enzymes, and vitamins be classified into TWO classes according to your body’s needs.  Some are for 1) immediate survival and reproduction and 2) for others, their function is for long-term, disease-free health and vitality (Ames, 2018).

What’s the relevancy here? Many people say, “Taking vitamins is like flushing money down the toilet.” The problem was, that for decades, scientists were unable to tease apart urgent and survival needs VERSUS long-term health in terms of the effect that the supplement has on our body.

So, the data on how each supplement affects our body can be skewed by your time span of the study, dosage, reliability of intake, study design, supplement quality, frequency and the “end game” evidence you are looking for. In short, even the best supplement studies raise questions. Trust me, I know the evidence can be conflicting. I have read them.

My favorite “Big 10” Micronutrients: Every one of these nutrients have clear, peer-reviewed evidence, in scientific journals that show they contribute to optimizing metabolic function, resulting in decreased DNA damage and lowering cancer risks (Ames, 2010).

The strongest micronutrients are: sulfurophane, curcumin, alpha-lipoic acid, iron, selenium, magnesium, zinc, vitamin B6, vitamin C, folic acid, coenzyme Q10, vitamin K2, and biotin. You will have to figure out your own plan based on your own age, needs and resources.

In fact, always consult a qualified health practitioner before making ANY changes. Why? Everybody has a different health history, DNA and lifestyle. Do NOT copy another person’s health regimen. Yes, you ARE unique (Leone, Courbon, Ducimetiere, & Zureik, 2006).

  1. Remove Toxins

It might shock you how often you are breathing in or applying toxins to your body. It still boggles my mind that so many of these products are still on the market, available for you to purchase. Regardless, the massive amounts of environmental toxins you are likely exposed to daily is wreaking havoc on your immune system. Here are the big 3 environmental toxins to be aware of:

Household chemicals: These are things like the cleaning products you use, weed killers, bleach products, etc. They are full of toxins that you are breathing in daily. If they have a permanent presence in your home, your body is having to constantly fight against them. Throw them away. A homemade cleaner of vinegar and baking soda is cheaper, a great cleaner, and best of all – not toxic! Don’t like the smell? Add a few drops of lemon essential oils to take that vinegar edge off (Zota, Aschengrau, Rudel, & Brody, 2010).

Not interested in the DIY cleaner approach? There are many non-toxic cleaning products available at your local store. A quick google search for non-toxic cleaning products can lead you to several great options from gurus who love a clean counter as much as you. In 2019 there is really no excuse for you to still be using RoundUp®, bleaches, or your favorite toxic spray just because you like how it smells. Out of a possible 97 home toxins, most homes have or use over 50 of them (as reported by women living in the homes). Over half eventually got breast cancer in an interview-based study (Altman, 2008).

The Air You Breathe: The quality of air in your home is important because you inhale up to 15,000 liters of air/day (Wood et al. 2002). Any contaminants produce pollutants present in the air. How do you know if your home has poor air quality? A couple options: go to Home Depot and buy an at-home air quality test and follow the instructions. Or, there are plenty of professional companies who will come to your house with their equipment and test your air. Get on Yelp! or Google and find one in your area.

What do you do in the (likely) case your air quality is less than desirable? First, open some windows and get some fresh air flowing through your home (assuming there is fresh air outside). You can purchase an electric air purifier and place it in your bedroom where you spend the most time.

Another option is to take a trip to your local nursery and pick up a few toxin-absorbing plants. Yes, there are many plants out there that literally suck up the toxins in the air, making your home a safer place to be. Snake plants, spider plants, peace lilies, and bamboo palm absorb toxins at a higher rate than other plants (Wolverton & Wolverton, 1993; Mahnert, Moissl-Eichinger, & Berg, 2015).

The Poisons You Put on Your Body: Picture yourself wiping a cancer-breeding cream all over your face and body. Who would do that? Well, a lot of people do. Again, you’d be shocked to learn how many face cleaning products, shampoos, conditioners, soaps, hair coloring products, deodorants, and makeup products are packed full of toxic chemicals. And people are putting them all over their body every day! Your body’s immune system should not have to be fighting against your wrinkle cream.

Stop buying things that contain “Parabens.” They’re a family of chemicals used in various personal care products and have long been linked to cancer. They disrupt estrogen function (Harvey, 2003). As an alternative, buy from the companies selling natural products. Arm & Hammer (“Essentials Natural Deodorant”) and Tom’s (“Natural Deodorant” and toothpaste) are a couple of my go-to suppliers.

All of this information can be overwhelming, I know. If you are feeling guilty ruminating about all the ways you are slowly killing yourself from chronic inflammation, STOP! That is only making it worse. Instead, take a moment and acknowledge yourself for whichever of these are already a part of your personal lifestyle. Pat yourself on the back – you are already helping your body stay cancer free. Now, pick one area you know you can improve on. Make a change and stick with it. When it becomes a comfortable habit, make another improvement. You are worth it!



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