Monday, March 10, 2008

What Causes Cancer?

If you thought the God Blog entries were controversial, this one's going to cause an even bigger stir.

I hesitated writing anything about this topic for a number of reasons:

- This is mostly based on my own untrained, uneducated research from the Internet, books, and medical or scientific research papers, all of which are rife with misleading information, hidden agendas, and incorrect or contradictory "facts".
- Some of my understanding of these issues might just be PLAIN WRONG. Please correct me if you think I'm wrong.
- I don't necessarily believe all of this stuff, but am taking the "better safe than sorry" approach. Wimpy, I know.
- I don't want to impose my opinions on other people. I used to laugh at vegetarians, especially those who got all preachy about the evils of eating meat. Man has been eating meat for thousands of years. How can meat be bad for our health?
- I don't want people to start tossing out everything in their kitchen cupboards and bathroom cabinets on the basis of what they read here, without doing their own research and making informed choices appropriate to their lifestyles. Some of this information calls for DRASTIC changes in your life, many of which are logistically impossible, financially crippling, or just plain stress-inducing. And there's STILL NO GUARANTEE that any of these changes will prevent you from getting cancer.

I've finally decided to write about this because:

- People keep asking me to do it. Many of you are concerned about health issues but are too busy with work, family, and life to do the research. I used to be too busy as well, until keeping myself alive became a full-time job.
- People want to know why I have cancer when I'm in such a low-risk category.
- I've had genetic testing done and I do NOT have the breast cancer gene mutations. So people want to know why I have breast cancer, and such an aggressive form of it, when I don't have the gene mutations that cause breast cancer.

This is some of what I’ve learned about cancer, particularly breast cancer, in the past two years since I was diagnosed:

Only 5 – 10 percent of ALL cancers are hereditary. That means the other 90 – 95 percent are due to lifestyle, environmental factors, or just bad luck. Don’t confuse “hereditary” with “genetic”. ALL cancers are genetic, i.e., caused by genetic mutations. A cancer is considered hereditary when this genetic mutation is inherited.

There are thousands, probably millions of factors that INCREASE your risk for cancer, but no SINGLE, direct cause. In the case of breast cancer, most of these factors are out of our control: being female, menstruating at an early age, having a first-degree relative with breast cancer. But some of these factors ARE under our control, albeit to a limited extent: diet, exercise, level of exposure to carcinogenic substances and other toxins.

Maintaining an ultra-healthy lifestyle and living in a protective bubble STILL doesn't mean you won't get cancer. Christopher Reeve's wife didn't smoke and she died of lung cancer. I have friends who've been smoking a pack a day for two decades and they might live to be a hundred (Although I wouldn’t bet the rest of my short life on it.). But these are the 20 percent on either side of the bell curve. Most of us fall in the 80 percent middle portion.

One common analogy for cancer is farming. The soil is fertile and you scatter a bunch of seeds. Some seeds grow and others don't, although they all have the same soil, sun, and water. Our bodies are like the soil - fertile and ready to let those cancer seeds grow. The sun and water are environmental and lifestyle factors: exposure to chemicals, nutrition, exercise. Some of those cancer cells will grow and some will not, just like some of the seeds will grow and some will not. Nobody knows for sure why that is. I'll leave it to you to extrapolate from this to see how fiddling with the soil, sun, and water can encourage more or fewer seeds to grow.

In most bodies, the cancer cells start growing, but the healthy cells/immune system keep them in check and the cancer cells die a natural death, as all cells are meant to do. But in some cases, the cancer cells do NOT die as they're supposed to. They keep multiplying and dividing out of control, faster than the immune system can get rid of them. And when enough of these cells accumulate, you've got a tumor. There is a great deal of controversy over exactly what TRIGGERS these cancer cells to NOT die a natural death and instead grow out of control. But there are many, many studies (some less scientific and convincing than others) that point to diet and exposure to certain toxic chemicals as triggers.

Dioxin is one such toxic chemical that is now widely acknowledged as a cancer trigger - a carcinogenic substance. Do a Google search and you'll find plenty of info about dioxin. For example:

From Action PA's Web site (environmental activists, so they have a bias):

"A North American eating a typical North American diet will receive 93% of their dioxin exposure from meat and dairy products (23% is from milk and dairy alone; the other large sources of exposure are beef, fish, pork, poultry and eggs). In fish, these toxins bioaccumulate up the food chain so that dioxin levels in fish are 100,000 times that of the surrounding environment. The best way to avoid dioxin exposure is to reduce or eliminate your consumption of meat and dairy products by adopting a vegan diet."

From the World Health Organization (WHO) Web site:

"Although formation of dioxins is local, environmental distribution is global. Dioxins are found throughout the world in practically all media. The highest levels of these compounds are found in some soils, sediments and food, especially dairy products, meat, fish and shellfish. Very low levels are found in plants, water and air."

Other potentially carcinogenic substances that I've learned about in my research include:

- Acrylamide (in potato and corn chips, french fries, other fried or baked starchy foods)
- Aflatoxin (in peanuts and peanut products, especially peanut butter)
- Parabens (in personal care and baby care products such as lotions, shampoos, etc.)
- Formaldehyde (in building materials, cosmetics, medicines, diet colas, etc.)

There are also the myriad substances in our food, household products and environment that damage our healthy cells and immune systems so that our bodies can't fight those over-powered cancer cells and keep them from growing enough to do harm. Some say that ALL of us have cancer cells in our bodies. But not all of those cancer cells get to critical mass and become cancer. Or, they may take a very long time to get to that point - an entire lifetime of continued exposure to particular substances. According to the American Cancer Society, one out of two American men and one out of three women will get cancer at some point in their lives.

And then there are substances that actually FEED cancer cells. For example, sugar. When they do a PET scan to find where the cancerous tumors are in your body, they inject a glucose solution mixed with radioactive dye into your blood stream and then put you in a machine that will pick up the radioactive glucose tracer. The glucose solution lights up on the PET scan because cancer cells metabolize, or feed off the sugar and become active enough to be seen on the scan - like a feeding frenzy of sorts. That's why sugar is especially bad for people who already have cancer. It's like throwing lighter fluid on a fire.

Animal protein also seems to feed cancer cells. A good scientific study to explain this is "The China Study" by T. Colin Campbell. This is not a diet or nutrition book. It's a scientific study of the link between diet and disease, written, ironically, by a scientist who grew up on a dairy farm and set out to prove that malnutrition in Third World countries was due to lack of animal protein in the diet. He ended up finding out something completely different. The book is not just about one study either, but covers thousands of studies - both in the lab and in the human population. So animal products (meat, dairy, eggs) appear to be bad for TWO reasons: 1) they expose us to dioxin, 2) animal protein feeds cancer cells.

And in the case of breast cancer, which is thought to be connected to lifetime exposure to estrogen, animal products are bad for yet a THIRD reason: the growth hormones (estrogen) that are in meat, dairy, and eggs. Growth hormones are banned in Europe but widely used in the U.S. The use of growth hormones in our food and other increased exposure to estrogen in our environment in recent decades has been linked to teen-aged girls getting their periods earlier and earlier (and thereby increasing breast cancer risk).

I changed my family's food sources and switched to natural, eco-friendly household cleaners. But I did most of this during my first pregnancy, BEFORE I was diagnosed with cancer. I already had a fairly healthy lifestyle: I exercised, ate mostly fresh vegetables, avoided processed food, etc. After I was diagnosed, I got militant and cut out all meat, dairy, eggs, sugar, alcohol, and caffeine. Still, my cancer came back with a vengeance and began to spread throughout my body.

Does this mean the diet changes I'd adopted were hogwash? I don't think so. There's too much evidence, plus just plain common sense behind the notion that what we put into our bodies affects how well and long our bodies last. I've just been particularly unlucky. Or all those sausages I ate in my youth are catching up with me. (Yummm... LOVE sausages... and fried chicken, and cheese, and french fries, and... DOH-nuts... I'm not one of those vegetarians who WANTS to eat rabbit food all the time. I'd rather have a Big Mac than a bowl of sprouts ANY day! Disgusting, but true.)

Have I removed ALL suspected carcinogens from my family's life? That would be impossible. The very air we breathe puts us at risk. My kids still eat meat, dairy, and eggs, but mostly hormone-free or organic and in very small amounts. My kids eat peanut butter almost everyday, but only pure organic peanut butter that is refrigerated and therefore less prone to forming aflatoxin. And Tony's not about to give up his red wine and cheese, no matter how many relatives die of cancer.

Think of it this way: There's a way to reduce our risk of dying in a car accident to ZERO percent: Don't ever get in a car. But our modern lifestyle doesn't allow that. Instead, we use safety belts, airbags, car seats for our kids and take other measures to minimize our risk. Minimize, not eliminate. There's NO way to reduce our risk of dying of cancer to zero percent. But we can take measures to minimize our risk.


leighbee said...

Thank you Shin for such an informative and informed write up. The information you have provided is simply priceless and as always BEAUTIFULLY written.


Deb said...

Hey Shin,

What about stress and anger?
I've read a lot about people who stress out, worry and have a fiery temper are also at a higher risk of getting cancer.
Surely it can't just be put down to food and what we put into our bodies.

Shin said...


I've also read about the possible connection between stress and cancer, but I don't know of any scientific evidence showing a direct link.

Here are some articles:

National Cancer Institute (U.S. government agency)

New York Times

Cancer Research U.K.

Jin said...

Hello all!

I feel compelled to chime in on this issue. Deb, you ask a very good question. Like most issues, there are a multitude of factors at play. I can tell you that the relationship between various medical conditions (including cancer) and stress and anger has been extensively researched (and continues to be researched) in the psychology field.

For example, as part of my doctoral dissertation research, I did a literature review of existing research on the relationship between anger and coronary heart disease (CHD). There is, by the way, a plethora of evidence linking anger and CHD in the psychological literature.

My dissertation topic addressed the relationship between different styles of anger expression and a specific set of mental disorders. My research findings were that there is in fact a statistically significant relationship between different styles of anger expression and some very specific forms of mental disorder.

So yes, stress and anger are factors (among many others) that can have an impact on physical health and disease. If only it were as simple as the food we put into our bodies, but we humans are very complex creatures, and our brains and bodies are very complicated (and quite amazing, if you ask me). Btw, it's also about what we DON'T put into our bodies (i.e., certain nutrients that maximize cognitive, emotional, and physical functioning).

One thing is clear however (at least based on psychological research). There's no denying that there is a relationship between various psychological, social, and environmental factors and mental, emotional, and physical well-being and functioning.

And since you mention stress, psychological research has established that stress compromises our immune systems. Conversely, low levels of stress derived from such things as social support, positive attitude, resilience (which is more a temperament issue) and yes, even faith (not to bring that whole issue up again) has been shown to correlate with stronger immune systems, and having a mitigating effect on mental disorders and physical illness.

One unfortunate reality, since Shin brings up the issue of what we put into our bodies and exposure to various toxins, is that much of what we do that potentially increases our predisposition for or vulnerability to various negative problems later in life, we often tend to do during our teens and early twenties.

This is attributable in part, to the stage of brain development during this particular stage in our lives. Not to get too technical, but our frontal lobes (the front portion of our brains) aren't fully formed until approximately age 21. The frontal lobe is responsible for "executive functioning," which involves everything from judgement, the ability to plan ahead and carefully think through consequences, and impulse control. This is, in large part, why teens and tweens tend to engage in high risk behaviors and act as if they are invincible.

Unfortunately, this often translates to potentially self-destructive behaviors including smoking, drinking, drugging, practicing unsafe sex, reckless driving, poor diet, not exercising... the list goes on. I say "unfortunately," because the negative impacts of such behaviors and lifestyles don't typically manifest until much later in life.

Perhaps if the negative impact, and therefore feedback were more immediate, people would be more inclined to modify their behavior. But I can tell you from my experience working with patients that again unfortunately, it's not until the negative effects of one's behaviors and choices actually begin to manifest that they're willing to modify their behavior. For some, it takes catastrophic events before they realize a need to change and do things differently, and the reality is that for some, it's too late.

Another related example is in the psychological research on gratitude and its relationship with psychological, emotional, and physical well being. There's increasing evidence that the more a person has an attitude of gratitude (and I'm not trying to be Dr. Seuss here!), the more happy a person tends to be. People who are more grateful and focus on their blessings, tend to report higher levels of happiness, and such people tend to be more healthy overall.

So the short answer to your question Deb is yes, it's much more complex and multifactorial than the food we put in our bodies (at least based on existing psychological research), and stress and anger do indeed play a role in various medical issues. Having said that, the food we put in our bodies and exposure to toxins have also been shown to play a role. So Shin has a very good point.


P.S. Katie, if you're reading this and thinking I'm sounding "brainy" again, don't be fooled! If I appear "brainy" on this one, it's only because it's what I know and do for a living. Ask me about business finance or computer science, and I assure you, you'd think I'm a complete dolt! We're all "brainy," just about different things!


Deb said...

Wow Jin you truely are a Na.


(For those of you that have recently joined, Shin and Jin are sisters and Na is their family name)

Stephen Parker said...

Hi Shin, we met very briefly prior to you leaving for Xmas in NYC. I'll introduce mysalf again as Chemo Brain will have made you forget :). I'm Stephen and Karen is sitting beside me adding her tuppence worth (Scottish saying for adding "valued" opinion). Angela Simpson is Karen's big sister.

I've (Stephen, Karens husband) just read your whole blog after Karen told me about it, better than any book i've ever read!!!!! Thats not meant to be a compliment by the way but just a way of me saying i'm in awe of your mindset and fight.

We live is Scotland, the cancer capital of Western Europe (due in the main to poor lifestyle choices) so we're all closely affected by it................there is little chance of you not knowing someone very close to you who has had the big C.

I'll only be echoing comments left by people who will mentioned your bravery & outlook but i have a different take on it. My mum died from Lung Cancer in 1999 after being diagnosed in 1995 (she was only given a 6 month life expectancy!!) & you know all about Angela & Karens dad. My point is, i've learned more from reading your blog and from Karen & Cathy's research than i'd done when my mum was diagnosed. Why? well simply it was down to hopelessness and acceptance my mum would die quickly. A real s*it way of looking at it i know but i'm only being honest.

Words are cheap i know but to me & my family, your making a difference
& whilst that is selfish i know, its whats real to me.


karen(angelas wee sister) said...

Hi Shin,

Predictable wasn't it! , Karen here ( wee sister of Angela)
Just had to write and say that you are in our thoughts. i know that sounds lame but i mean that every communication(phone and webcam) from Scotland to Singapore we talk and worry about you and your family and the journey you are all on and feel priveleged to have a glimpse into this journey. We only met once when you soooooooo kindly offered your home as our home and then and there i thought 'lovely lady, kind, generous and oozing a lovely warm karma' then as i have learnt more and more about you and your families life i feel humbled to have known your personal journey. When i hear people moan, act selfish i want to SHOUT ; you have no idea, i want them to get a reality check on life and enjoy every breath, i want to say read Shin's blog - do not worry i promise i give it out to no one!
Thinking of you all !

Jin said...


I'll take your last comment as a compliment! Despite the fact that you aren't the first one to make the comment, "You're such a Na!" And it generally was NOT meant as a compliment, albeit usually in jest!

One thing we Na's are known for is our verbosity, in case you haven't noticed! Hence, Tony's "Hallelujah!" comment under Shin's "Listen Up" blog!

Tony, if you're reading this, I'm sure Daniel (my husband, for those of you who don't know) can relate to your comment! He feels your pain! I myself laughed out loud when I read that one!

For the sake of brevity, I'll leave it at that for now, so I can take Deb's comment as a compliment rather than exasperation!

Shin, I can't wait to see you and spend time with you and the family!!!


Shin said...

Stephen! Karen!

Hello over there in Scotland! I was tickled to see you'd joined our outspoken little Blog community. Thanks so much for your comments.

Karen, I'd LIKE you to give out my Blog address to anyone and everyone you know. That sounds awfully narcissistic. But my reasons for keeping this Blog have changed over time.

First, it was to keep my overseas family and friends up-to-date on my treatment.

Then, it was a record for me to document my treatments, symptoms, and my thoughts and feelings through it all.

Soon, I realized that other cancer patients/survivors and their care-givers were reading my Blog for information that they say was helpful to them.

Now, this Blog has become different things to different people:

- A place to exchange information and ideas.

- A place to find support from others who are in a similar situation.

- A glimpse, as you say, into what a person facing death sees, thinks, feels. (Might sound morbid, but I'd be EXTREMELY curious.)

- And once I'm gone and my children are grown, this Blog will give them some insight into who their mother was, warts and all.

So please, give my Blog address out to anyone you think could benefit from my story as well as the growing number of very helpful comments being posted.

Deb said...

Jin, my comment was indeed a compliment, it's a shame there's not more of you Na's so we could all have one at home. An off switch would come in handy though.

I've been involved in many debates with Shin and lost many, well most, in fact probably all.
During those times I've let Ward (my other half) take over because he can really give her a run for her money, you're right, you'd get on great with him.

At the end of the day we wouldn't want her to be any other way, we love her for who she is and all she believes in.


Jin said...


Be careful what you ask for (more Na's)! I'm sure my husband Daniel would agree that an off switch would come in handy!

I hadn't made the connection until just now that you and Ward are each other's other half. What a neat couple the two of you seem to be!