Colon cancer is one more form of cancer that we have all become very well aware of in the past decade or two, impacting 1 out of 24 adults in their lifetime. This equates to about 4.15% incidence rate and causing an estimated 51,000 deaths in the United States in 2019 according to the American Cancer Society. While those statistics may seem low, relatively speaking, the incidence of colon polyps in the average American range around 15-20% or 1 in 5 people. Seeing the increasing rise in incidence in both colon polyps and cancer, one may believe they are not in control, but the opposite is actually true. Let’s look at some options that appear to provide the most benefits regarding possible prevention and even management of both colon cancer and polyps.
Generally speaking, when it comes to cancer, of any type or form, there are often very similar predisposing risk factors which make a person more susceptible.
- Increasing age (generally > 50 years of age)
- Family history of the cancer type or polyps
- History of another form of cancer in the past
- Use of tobacco products
- Use of alcohol in excess
- Overweight body condition
- Lack of exercise
- Improper Diet
- Improper Mindset/Stress
The second to last point, which is often left off of this list, and is proving to be very important, is your DIET. As a doctor myself, having dealt with one form of cancer already in my lifetime, I am always stunned that there is no discussion about diet by the physicians to the patients, no matter the form of cancer which is present.
If you ‘Google’ the causes of colon cancer, most results will simply state the above risk factors. Now, while they open the door for cancer, they do not ’cause’ cancer themselves. They just essentially set the stage, weaken the person’s defenses, and create a disposition for that cancer. There are plenty of overweight and sedentary people in our world who do not develop colon cancer, or even any form of cancer, so we cannot directly make a ’cause-effect’ type of relationship. This is true for the diet as well, despite my emphasizing it above.
What is noted, is that with these lifestyle factors, or risk factors, the person is generally unhealthy. On a grander level, these lifestyle factors alter the person’s bodily chemistry, their physiology, which then impacts other events in their body, including immune health and the concept of inflammation.
In reality, if you desired a cause for colon cancer, that cause, at least on a cellular level, would likely be linked to inflammatory events. These inflammatory events are then what creates the cellular changes, mutations, further development, immune compromise, and invasion of the host. The other risk factors mentioned above are what heavily contribute to that ‘inflammation’.
Colon Cancer and the Environment
If you look at any cancer type, be it colon cancer or otherwise, you may or may not realize that in reality, the cancer cells were normal cells originally, but something caused them to change. Before, they were happy and healthy cells, but now they are angry, irritated, and have gone rogue, so to speak, having a mind of their own on a certain level. They expand beyond their normal limits, crossing borders they shouldn’t have considered, and begin to alter their function and often the function of other organs around them.
So, what causes this ‘change’, so to speak??
In most cases, this is where the concept of carcinogens comes into play, which are chemicals introduced into the body which directly impact cellular health and function. Most of these carcinogens create cellular damage by inflicting oxidative stress or inflammatory changes within those cells, which leads to mutations on a genetic level, altered function…and the rest of the story then continues.
This leads to the three stages of cancer development, which are:
Something or some event needs to ‘initiate‘ cellular change, which then if allowed to continue, it ‘promotes‘ further cellular change, which if allowed to continue further, leads to ‘progression‘. This progression is where the cancer continues to develop, increase in size, invade surrounding tissue, and potentially spread or metastasize to other areas of the body.
When it comes to cancer in certain organ system, either the carcinogen present is very strong and instantly creates cellular changes in one exposure, or the cells are repeatedly exposed to the carcinogen over time. In research models, it is common to use very potent carcinogens to stimulate various forms of cancer in rodents for observation. Usually, one injection or one exposure is enough in a concentrated form to induce cellular changes and prompt progression. That’s how powerful some of these chemicals can be to our bodies. However, while this is possible in normal life, my understanding and observation is that more likely, it is repeated exposure that creates the events for most.
The other key thing to keep, in mind here, is that for most of us, we cannot avoid some of these carcinogens as they are in our food or otherwise. Our bodies have a natural defense mechanism against many chemicals, either through elimination or detoxification, altering them from a harmful form to a less damaging one. This is done through organs such as our liver and kidney, but also through antioxidant systems in our body and through our food or herb choices.
There are likely hundreds, if not thousands of known carcinogens, as noted by the CDC, which we either are exposed to in our environment topically, but also ingest in our air, water, and food. These may include any numerous food additives, chemicals, dyes, and preservatives. It is next to impossible to eliminate any one, if not two of them, as some are out of our control. Taking a deep breath in the city limits of New York is likely not healthy at all.
When it comes to colon cancer, you have to keep in mind that the colon is an elimination organ. It has some absorptive properties, but is really a storage vat for waste material in our body, with the goal of elimination or defecation. Now, seeing this, if one takes in various carcinogens, even in low doses on a daily basis via food, it is possible there is little harm IF the person is having regular bowel movements and eliminating that waste. However, this is not always the case, and for many people, they are living with constipation, irritable bowel conditions, or otherwise, which are causing retention of waste material in their colon. As this waste material is held longer, the exposure is higher, and thus chances of problem climb as does the incidence.
This is like putting gasoline on your skin, which is a carcinogen. You can quickly note the exposure and take appropriate actions to remove it, or you could ignore it, let it dry, and forget about it. The ignoring option leads to an increased exposure rate or time, which increases the chances of cellular reactions or changes in response to that carcinogen.
Now, there are some out there that may claim that our genetics plays a huge role, which I partially agree, and that you can develop colon cancer just because your mother or father had it. For me, as a doctor and researcher, this is only partially correct. Again, this is a risk factor and it sets the stage, but it does not mean this is your fate by any measure. There are things you can do or don’t do, which further set that stage, increasing the odds of cancer development.
And…by the way, although colon polyps are seen as ‘benign’, which they are, and readily removed, they are a warning sign that something is not right in the cellular physiology of your colon. Something is initiating changes in that region and should wave a ‘red’ flag to get your attention. Colon polyps are seen as a risk factor, because they are. Their presence means the stage has been set and intervention, likely way beyond simple surgical removal, is warranted to reduce the odds of either recurrence of the polyp or transformation into a malignancy.
Diet, Herbs, and Colon Cancer; Why they are Important!
On some medical sites, they do note diet as being a risk factor, mentioning a low-fiber, high fat diet as being a predisposing concern. While this is true, there is rarely a mention as to why this is important. To me, as a doctor, you can tell a patient or client to ‘do something’, but the impact on that person is much better if they understand ‘why’ they are doing it. If there is little understanding on behalf of the patient, then there is often a tendency not to fully implement, or stray from its importance.
When it comes to colon cancer or polyps, in my opinion, two things are desired:
- Increase frequency and ease of bowel movements and defecation
- Promote a healthy microbiome and inflammatory environment in the digestive tract
Now, seeing those two important concepts, you may or may not make connections with the above mentioned risk factors. Each of those risk factors impacts one of the above desires. If you are taking in improper foods or drinks, loaded with possible carcinogens, and your lifestyle factors create a tendency towards constipation, then you are increasing risk two fold. If further, your lifestyle factors, including the diet, do not promote digestive health and a proper microbiome balance, and creating a tendency towards constipation, you may have increased the risk by three fold.
So, how do you accomplish this feat???
For starters, you have to modify those lifestyle factors. Reduce body weight, get active, and alter your diet and lifestyle. If you are living a very stressful life, burning the candle at both ends to keep your head above water, this has to change. Your body weight, being overweight, is what increases the risk for other health problems, including cancer. The body weight is reflective not just of your diet and lifestyle, but also mental perceptions of yourself and your life. Think about that for a moment.
The diet is one thing you are heavily in control of and with knowledge, you can make changes tonight with your ‘first’ meal of the future. It is not that a diet high in fat and low in fiber is harmful, as this is often a regimen adopted by those following a ‘ketogenic’ diet. More so, it is what foods you are choosing to eat and what you are ‘not getting’ as a result of that chosen diet or food choices.
I discuss the diet in more detail in this article.
Your diet impacts your health on many levels. Your food choices not only deliver or don’t deliver proper nutrient provisions for overall cellular and immune health, but they also directly impact your digestive microbiome, and the frequency of your bowel movements. In addition, these foods choices can either encourage or discourage chronic inflammatory events in your body on many levels. These benefits cannot be achieved by ignoring proper food choices and instead, reaching for a multi-vitamin supplement at the grocery store.
Fiber is a macronutrient which is well known to most people as there are commercials after commercials, stating the importance of fiber for digestive health. I see some of these commercials, stating a breakfast cereal contains ‘fiber’, thus it can assist with your health, and I think it is misleading on many levels. Yet, despite this, many of us fall prey to it and continue to eat that cereal or drink that powdered fiber. While this is likely of no harm, it can create a false illusion of security if other factors are not addressed.
The average American consumes less than 10 grams of fiber per day, while recommendations are 30 grams and above. There are some cultures that consume close to 100 grams of fiber per day, based on their diet, so that may put things into perspective. Your fiber intake should come from foods, whole foods, as this is the source and only real source. Plant based foods are the ideal source, as vegetables and fruits are literally full of insoluble and soluble fiber that benefits our bodies. But…you have to consume them in the proper quantities and on a daily basis. This fiber not only helps to improve bowel movements and defecation frequency, but it literally alters the digestive microbiome, which then impacts bowel health, proper digestion, and inflammation. It can even benefit your immune response!
In addition to foods, herbs are a very close second and should be incorporated into every diet regimen. For many people, as they get accustomed to cooking their own meals, the use of spices and herbs becomes second nature to add flavor and zeal to any food. However, the use of herbs goes beyond just application to foods. When we apply them to foods, the dosage or quantity used can be quite low, as our purpose is to enhance flavor. While this is okay, for many with pre-existing problems, or other uncontrolled risk factors, the dosage of those herbs may need to be increased and the only way to do this is via supplementation.
There are hundreds of herbs that have shown benefit in colon cancer research studies. These herbs include Curcumin/Turmeric, Ginger, Triphala powder, Tangerine peel, Bupleurum, Aloe, mushrooms, and many others too numerous to mention. The one thing in common with most, based on research, is their ability to impact inflammatory events present within the body, often specific to the digestive tract. In addition, many of these herbs also demonstrate the ability to impact your digestive microbiome, helping it to be more in balance. This effect is due to changes in the inflammatory status of the digestive tract, fiber or lignans which may be present in the herb, or due to natural antibiotic like properties which may reduce levels of harmful bacteria.
In the end, colon cancer incidence is increasing and likely will continue to increase. However, despite the increase in incidence that will likely happen, what is evident is that you do have a choice in the matter and your choices due influence the risk for many diseases, including colon cancer. Not only can these proper choices be used as a means of prevention, to lower your risk, but studies show that they can also be incorporated as a means of management.
Author: Tom Schell, D.V.M, CVCH, CHN