Once upon a time, a diagnosis of breast or prostate cancer meant either lengthy and aggressive medical treatment or reconciling oneself to the idea that the cancer will grow and grow until it kills you. But might the idea that, if left untreated, these cancers will always kill you be nothing more than a fairy tale?
This month’s release of historically non-aggressive guidelines suggest, for some cancers anyway, it just might.
- The American Urologic Association (AUA) now recommends that certain men with prostate cancer should be offered the option of surveillance rather than treatment.
- The US Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) now recommends less frequent mammograms. The old recommendations were for an annual mammogram starting at age 40. The new recommendations are to start at age 50, and only get screened every other year.
A Kinder, Gentler Approach
The AUA has recognized that in treating prostate cancers that are unlikely to ever spread, doctors may have subjected hundreds of thousands of American men to unnecessary procedures and suffered needless complications, including loss of bladder control and sexual function. This is the rationale for less aggressive care. Nevertheless, the AUA worries that few people will take this safer option.
The USPSTF has recognized that by treating tiny, early stage breast cancers so aggressively, doctors may also have unknowingly subjected hundreds of thousands of American women to unnecessary procedures, leading to needless complications including disfigurement and even death, all the while assuming they were saving people’s lives.
Years ago, I asked one of Hawaii’s top breast surgeons what the natural course of a tumor were a patient to refuse treatment and let nature take its course. He told me he had never seen a study to answer that question so, unfortunately, he had absolutely no idea. Now, with support of USPSTF, more surgeons will hopefully share this honest appraisal with their patients and encourage them to re-prioritize their lives in order to pursue a healthier mode of living.
Your Body’s Best Defense: A Vigilant Immune System
We’ve all gotten used to the idea that cancer is universally devastating and that technology is the only hope for salvation. Our bodies have little defense, the thinking went, against this most evil of villains. Andrew Weil was one of the first to challenge this mythology, and in 2000 his book Spontaneous Healing cited several instances of patients who’s cancers spontaneously regressed. It’s now well accepted that our bodies may be busy slaying cancerous cells all the time. (The medical term for this is immunosurveillance.)
Unfortunately, we still have no way of identifying which cancers the immune system can and will catch and which it won’t.
With further study, we may learn that regression is the natural course for many early or non-aggressive cancers if we successfully support our immune system function with good sleep, exercise, stress reduction, and of course a healthy diet built around natural, authentic cuisine.
We’ve learned a lot about cancer in the past 20 years, but by and large we’re still in the Dark Ages. We have yet to fully understand and appreciate a healthy immune system’s role as a shield against incipient (and potentially also more advanced) cancers.
Bottom line: high tech solutions can be useful in a fight against cancer, but supporting your immune system with real food and a healthy lifestyle is the best way to live happily ever after.