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Inflammation linked to cancer, but lifestyle changes can help

An illustration of inflammation in the body
Experts have long suspected inflammation may play some role in cancer’s development. But researchers have only recently pinpointed chronic inflammation as a primary risk factor for cancer and other serious health conditions.

Experts have long suspected inflammation may play some role in cancer’s development. In 1863, German scientist and physician Rudolf Virchow was the first to make the connection, observing that cancer often develops at sites of chronic inflammation. But researchers have only recently pinpointed chronic inflammation as a primary risk factor for cancer and other serious health conditions. Among the reasons it’s taken science so long to confirm the relationship: Chronic inflammation causes few, if any, outward symptoms. And inflammation by itself is a sign the body is doing its job.

The concept of inflammation is sometimes tricky to grasp because it may seem contradictory. On one hand, inflammation is a healthy process, essential to the body’s ability to heal itself. When you have an infection or injury, the immune system releases white blood cells and chemicals to fight off the infection or repair damaged tissue. But when inflammation persists, or when the immune system triggers an inflammatory response when you don’t have an infection or injury—like that caused by arthritis and other autoimmune diseases—it may damage healthy tissues. “Chronic inflammation is sometimes called ‘smoldering inflammation’ because it’s inflammation that never really resolves. It’s the opposite of ‘good’ inflammation, which your body uses to get rid of bacteria and viruses, and then, once it achieves its goal, resolves,” says Eugene Ahn, MD, Medical Director of Clinical Research and Hematologist/Oncologist at our Chicago hospital.

Today, researchers have a fairly broad understanding of inflammation’s split personality. They’ve learned that sometimes, chronic inflammation is caused by factors outside of our control, such as inherited gene mutations that raise the risk of chronic inflammation. But it also may result from lifestyle choices you may be able to change. That’s important because so-called lifestyle-dependent inflammation is on the rise. The connection between inflammation and cancer has been apparent for a long time, but it may be that it’s now coming into sharper focus because of the increase in lifestyle-dependent inflammation we’re seeing,

The causes

Chronic inflammation’s role in cancer development isn’t a small one. As many as one in five cancers are believed to be caused or influenced by inflammation. One reason is that chronic inflammation may damage DNA, says Cynthia Lynch, MD, Medical Director of the CTCA® Breast Cancer Center, Phoenix and Medical Oncologist at our Phoenix hospital. Other times, the inflammatory process produces molecules called cytokines, which stimulate the growth of blood vessels that bring oxygen and nutrients to the tumor, this process is called angiogenesis and is easily identified with the aid of Thermography. The process also may generate molecules called free radicals that further damage the DNA. These inflammation side effects may help sustain and fuel cancer growth.

Sometimes, cancer-causing chronic inflammation stems from a disease characterized by inflammation. Such as an autoimmune condition. The inflammatory diseases colitis, pancreatitis and hepatitis, for example, are linked to a greater risk of colon, pancreatic and liver cancers, respectively. In these diseases, immune cells create highly reactive molecules containing oxygen and nitrogen that can damage DNA. Inflammation also may cause cells to divide.

Chronic inflammation also may result from a chronic infection, like H. pylori, which is linked to stomach cancer, and hepatitis B and hepatitis C, which are linked to liver cancer. HIV increases the risk of other viruses and very rare cancers, including Kaposi sarcoma, non-Hodgkin lymphoma and invasive cervical cancer.

In other cases, environmental factors are the culprits. Asbestos exposure, for example, increases the risk for mesothelioma. Many environmental carcinogens and risk factors, in fact, are associated with some form of chronic inflammation. According to the National Institutes of Health, up to 20 percent of cancers are linked to chronic infections, 30 percent are linked to tobacco smoking and inhaled pollutants, such as asbestos, and 35 percent are linked to dietary factors, including obesity. “Whether it’s an autoimmune disease like hashimotos, lupus or rheumatoid arthritis etc… or irritations from a chemical you may be exposed to, such as asbestos, if we can reduce the amount of inflammatory processes in our environment, we can reduce our risk of cancer,” Dr. Mons says.

Reducing the risk

Today, researchers are exploring whether oxygen sensors in the body can be manipulated to reduce chronic inflammation. One study found that tricking immune cells into believing they’re lacking oxygen makes them retreat from the site of inflammation to conserve energy. Why would we ever need to trick the body ? The body has it’s own innate intelligence, so my approach is different l recommend we run tests to establish the Root Cause of the inflammatory process in the body and using this information deal with the cause and not the symptoms thus restoring balance and function and reducing risk.

Lifestyle changes

With 35 percent of cancers linked to dietary factors like obesity, stress and lack of exercise, the association between lifestyle habits and inflammation remains a concern. These factors trigger an immune response, even without an infection to fight off or an injured tissue to heal. The more sedentary you are, the worse your diet is, and the lack of attention to unresolved emotional stress, all accelerate the inflammatory cascade.

In fact, a 2016 report from the American Institute for Cancer Research found that maintaining a healthy weight may be as important as avoiding tobacco and overexposure from the sun. And the American Cancer Society found that those who follow a healthy lifestyle, by eating a nutritious diet, limiting alcohol consumption and taking other important steps, are 10 to 20 percent less likely to be diagnosed with cancer.

Diet and exercise top the healthy lifestyle list. And even small changes can make a difference, like including nutrient dense foods that contain anti-inflammatory nutrients to your plate, and eating more fermented foods, such as yogurt and miso, which contain natural probiotics that reduce inflammation. Also, dealing with unresolved emotional issues and avoid carcinogens like asbestos, silica and tobacco, and, if you have an underlying condition like an autoimmune issue, hepatitis B or hepatitis C etc… seek help.

Alcohol can act as an irritant, too, especially in the head and neck—the first area food or drink touches when swallowed. Another concern: Alcohol and its byproducts may damage the liver and lead to inflammation in the organ.

The bottom line: Focus on what you can change. “I always tell patients that there are certain things they have control over in their lives,, and they should only worry about the things they have control over,” “That’s where lifestyle comes into play.”

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