I was upset but not surprised by the latest news from Cancer Research that the incidence of breast cancer is rising and that the chances of contracting the disease are now 1 in 8, the women at greatest risk being those over 50. The report goes on to suggest that the reasons for this increase are alcohol consumption above the limits set by government, the use of HRT by older women to ease the symptoms of the menopause, obesity and having children later in life. The good news is that more women are surviving treatment – so that’s alright then.
For the record, I don’t have a problem with any of these findings. HRT is very likely to be a risk factor because, to my mind, popping a pill in the belief that you can achieve hormonal balance is far too simplistic, and in any case it is another invasive remedy. The body is so finely tuned that too much or too little of something can throw it into turmoil. Researchers are quite right to highlight obesity as an issue, as this condition is more often than not indicative of ‘metabolic syndrome,’ where the over consumption of processed carbohydrates sets the stage for insulin resistance. This occurs when the levels of insulin and glucose become dangerously high and the cells which normally open the door to insulin to allow in glucose fail to oblige. Known as hyperinsulinimia (hyper- meaning ‘high’), this condition is not to be treated lightly. Excess insulin encourages inflammation in the body and can lay the foundation for a range of degenerative conditions: heart disease, Alzheimer’s, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, other auto-immune conditions and of course cancer.
Unfortunately, the scientific approach to such problems is not to view them holistically but to single out one piece of the jigsaw whilst ignoring the whole. So what other factors might it be useful to consider in trying to see the bigger picture? Predictably, I am going to suggest starting with food.
I would like you to think for a moment about how dramatically our food has changed in the last 50 years or so. In the two million years that humans have been evolving, 50 years is a drop in the ocean. Our bodies haven’t had time to adjust to processed, chemically and biologically altered foods. We have lost not only the nutritional elements which natural foods provide us with, but also all those other wonderful characteristics that make food wholesome – taste and flavour in particular. In order to make processed food ‘tasty’ and ‘flavoursome,’ food manufacturers add chemicals, processed salts, sugars and chemically altered fats in the form of hydrogenated and trans fats, resulting in a plethora of non food additives that the normal body hardly recognises. The effect on the gut flora, which is the first port of call for this false food, is devastating. Abnormal bacteria proliferate, toxins result and the stage is set for a raft of ‘modern’ diseases.
Our bodies are wonderfully efficient at detoxification, but under a constant barrage of unnatural toxins from within, and environmental nasties from without, there comes a point when they simply ‘give in’ and say, ‘I can’t take any more’. And of course the over-consumption of alcohol just adds to this toxic load.
The stark reality is that we live in a man-made polluted world. Human activity and the avaricious pursuit of wealth at any cost have created ideal conditions for cancers to flourish. I make no apology for the list that follows; it will help to illustrate the scale of the problem.
Let’s start with what we put on our bodies. Our skin is not a barrier to toxins, as once thought, so all those chemically derived personal care products such as perfumes, deodorants, cosmetics, shampoos, toothpaste, soaps, makeup, sunscreens, etc, (all of which contain countless unpronounceable ingredients), are carcinogenic chemical cocktails. Cells removed from cancerous breast tissue have in many cases been found to contain aluminium, a toxic metal used in anti-perspirants to prevent sweating, and parabens, preservatives widely used in cosmetics to prevent the growth of bacteria. If you do your own research on the subject, you will find claims stating that these chemicals are not the cause of cancer. Individually they might not be, but how about the cocktail effect? There is little or no research on how these chemicals react together. Each one of us is exposed to different types and levels of chemicals every day of our lives and the effects might not manifest themselves for years. Personally I advocate the common sense approach. Ask yourself, “Do I need to subject my body to something potentially toxic that has been cooked up in a science lab – how much do I really need this product?”
Chemicals used in cleaning products are also toxic. There is now a detergent or cleaning substance for every surface in the house. Just take a look at the ingredients and ask yourself whether you would want such substances on your skin or the fumes in your lungs. On top of this, there are paints, new carpets, furnishings, flooring and furniture which give off toxic chemicals, one of the most common of which is formaldehyde, a known carcinogen. As an interesting aside, did you know that formaldehyde is formed when your body breaks down the ubiquitous artificial sweetener, aspartame?
And then there are plastics. Controversy about their impact on human health rages, but it is worth drawing attention to Bisphenol A (BPA) because of the various strands of research that implicates it in breast cancer (and prostate cancer in men). As far back as the 50s there was evidence of its oestrogenicity, i.e. it could mimic the effects of oestrogen, but once it was found that it could be polymerised into polycarbonate, a whole range of endless uses were opened up, many of them within the food and drink packaging industry: microwavable food containers, water bottles, the coating of the insides of cans, in DVDs, mobile phones, baby feeding bottles, medical equipment, dental sealants, flooring, paints – I could go on! The downside of BPA is that it is still effectively a synthetic oestrogen and, in ‘chemistry speak’, the bonds locking it together in the plastic easily break, making it a leaky sort of chemical. Consequently, we are all getting varying doses of BPA, due to its widespread use in consumer products and its ability to leach from them into our food and drink, our environments and our bodies. As an aside, Canada banned plastic baby bottles containing BPA in March 2010.
The causes of cancer are complex and I have only scratched the surface here (don’t get me started on electro-magnetic stress!) but have you noticed how the finger of blame always seems to be pointed at us? We are told we don’t exercise enough, we eat and drink too much, we’ve chosen to have children later in life, etc. What never seems to be brought into the equation are the multitude of pollutants to which we are all exposed on a daily basis. Science could hardly implicate the corporations who produce our food, cosmetics, cleaning products and every consumable product imaginable – that would be commercial heresy. We are told that more women are surviving cancer treatment, but isn’t prevention better than the invasive and psychologically debilitating nature of this treatment? It is time that consumers took control, refused to buy these harmful products and support instead those who produce safe alternatives.
As always, starting with our food is a good first step. By preparing meals from fresh ingredients, we avoid the excess of chemicals used in food processing and packaging. Secondly we can re-evaluate our personal care products by scrutinising the ingredients on the packaging. If we don’t like what we see, we should get rid of them. www.cosmeticsdatabase.com is an American on-line safety guide containing information on 7,731 ingredients found in cosmetics and personal care products. Although the products might seem unfamiliar, the ingredients are universal. The site is a mine of information and extremely well researched. If you feel the need to replace those you have thrown out, safer alternatives can be found on sites like www.soorganic.com or www.red23.co.uk Thirdly, we can cut down on the number of cleaning products we use and replace them with substances like good old fashioned white vinegar and/or bicarbonate of soda. They are kinder not only to us but the environment as well. Check out the household products manufactured by Bio-D: ‘natural, biodegradable, ethically sound and safe to use with minimal environmental impact.’ A limited range is found at Oxfam, otherwise try www.biodegradable.biz Importantly, these products are not fragranced. Thus people who suffer from air scenting chemical allergies are less likely to react.
By making simple changes to our buying and eating habits we reduce the toxic load that is an unwelcome consequence of living in the 21st century. At least we then know we are doing what we can to help our bodies cope with the other stressors in life that we have little control over.
Further reading: The Toxic Consumer: How to reduce your exposure to everyday toxic chemicals by Karen Ashton and Elizabeth Salter Green.
We can adopt many other preventative strategies particularly associated with food, and you might be interested in the following article written by Dr. Mercola, the American GP who has a practical approach to health care.