Tips On Transitioning Back to Work After Treatment

When U.S. Navy Rear Admiral Irve Le Moyne finished his cancer treatment at Houston’s MD Anderson Hospital, he rang a brass that he had installed on the way out of the oncology department. He also wrote this poem that hangs near the bell:

Ring this bell
Three times well
Its toll to clearly say

My treatment’s done
This course is run
And I am on my way!

— Irve Le Moyne

Ringing the bell to signify that treatment is over is practiced in hospitals and cancer centers all over the country. It is an emotional moment, filled with great joy, relief and not a small amount of trepidation. Treatment may be over, but, now what? The goal has been to beat the monster and regain the life that has been on hold for months, if not longer. Is that possible? Where do you start?

A major challenge looming on the near horizon is the decision about the right time to go back to work. The vast majority of breast cancer survivors are able to return to their jobs with very little problem. Most of us tell ourselves that work is a necessary evil and that we live for the weekend, but the truth is that our jobs are an important part of our lives, and returning to work is a positive stage of recovery. It will immediately give you a sense of normality and of being, once again, more in control of your life, something that has been missing since that day you were diagnosed.

There is a flip side, however. Not everyone experiences the same treatment for breast cancer, but whether yours included chemotherapy, radiation, surgery or all of the above, it has taken a major toll, physically, mentally and emotionally. You may be experiencing side effects, like hair loss or chemo brain, which is a form of cognitive impairment that affects thinking and memory and makes it hard to focus. In almost everyone, energy levels are usually affected to some degree.

Manage Expectations – Yours and Everyone Else’s

The number one, most important thing that you can do to make transitioning back to work a positive experience is to anticipate and manage expectations. This includes your expectations, as well as those of your boss, co-workers, friends and family.

According to Mary McCabe, RN, director of the Cancer Survivorship program at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, “Everyone’s ready for treatment to be over, not just you, and although they’ve been supportive, your friends and family may be expecting you to spring back right away. It’s an education process. They need to understand that when the therapy stops, that doesn’t mean that the effects of the therapy stop immediately.”

Even though you would no doubt prefer to simply dive back in at the same level as when you left, it will be up to you to make sure that everyone understands treatment may be over but it’s going to take some time for you to be back to your old self. Transitioning means just that; gradually reclaiming the long hours, extra duties and activities.

Expect varied reactions from your co-workers. Some will want to throw a party and others may be uncomfortable for a variety of reasons that have nothing to do with you. Allow them their reactions and keep in mind that what you share or choose not to share is totally up to you.

There will be other decisions to make about returning to work. You will need to honestly assess your stamina and whether you can return full time or should inquire about gradually increasing hours. There might even be the possibility of doing some work from home. Employers are not required to lower standards to accommodate an employee but they do have to offer reasonable accommodations like restructuring, offering part-time or modified work schedules and certain others that might make life a little easier for now.

Above all else, never lose sight of the fact that, while returning to work is a goal, your priority is your return to health.

How to Give a Self-Breast Exam

Forty percent of diagnosed breast cancers are detected by women who feel a lump, so establishing a regular breast self-exam is very important.” Johns Hopkins Medical Center

When you hear a new noise while driving down the road or feel even the slightest vibration that wasn’t there the last time, you know there is something going on with your car. We spend so much time in our vehicles that they feel like an extension of our bodies, and we can feel when something is different. The sad thing is that this is often truer with our cars than when there is actually something wrong in our own bodies. Sad is perhaps not the best word choice; perilous or at risk might be better.

This analogy is especially appropriate when we are talking about breast cancer. Every year, the nation turns pink in October and there are pink ribbons everywhere reminding us about being aware of the importance of early detection. The first step in that process is not filling out forms in the doctor’s waiting area: it is learning how your breasts normally look and feel. In order to be able to notice any changes that might indicate a problem, you must first learn breast self-awareness.

One of the best ways to become tuned in to the normal shape and look of your breasts is to practice doing a self-breast exam. Most healthcare professionals recommend doing this self-exam once a month. Try to do it close to the same time each month. Hormonal cycles affect the breasts, so for women who are premenopausal, it is better to do the medical exam at the end of the menstrual cycle. Postmenopausal women can simply pick a day to consistently do the exam each month.

Self-Breast Exam Steps

Self-breast exams should be repeated in different positions on the same day.                    

  • In the Shower – examine each breast, one at a time, by moving the pads of your finger in a circular motion around the breast and armpit. Start at the outside of the breast and move to the center. Feel for lumps, thickening of tissue or anything that feels like a knot. Be aware of any changes from the previous month.
  • In Front of a Mirror – start with arms at your side and visually inspect your breasts. Then, raise both arms overhead and look for changes in shape, swelling, dimpling or changes in nipple color or shape. Rest palms on hips and press to flex chest muscles, once again looking for dimpling, puckering or changes. Most women do not have exactly the same size or shape for both breasts so only look for changes.
  • Lying Down – lying down allows the breast tissue to spread out evenly along the chest wall. With a pillow under your right shoulder, place your right arm behind your head. Using your left hand in small circular motions, gently examine your right breast and armpit. Using light, medium and then firm pressure, squeeze the nipple and check for discharge and lumps. Repeat this process for the left breast.

If you notice any of following during your self-exam, make an appointment to consult with your doctor as soon as possible:

  • Discharge
  • Unexplained change in size or shape
  • Dimpling or puckering
  • Lump
  • Tender areas
  • Redness or warmth
  • Itchy, scaly skin

Become familiar with your breasts so that you can be your own early warning system. Remember, however, self-exams are not able to detect tumors as small as those found with a mammogram. Your best bet is monthly self-breast exams combined with yearly visits to your doctor for mammogram screening.

For more information please watch this video:

Why Are Mammograms Important? 

Every generation has its version of “if we can…”. One of the most popular has always been, “if we can put a man on the moon, why can’t we cure the common cold?” Or, of significantly more interest, “why can’t we cure cancer?” Unfortunately, we have yet to manage to do either. The good news, however, is that, according to the American Cancer Society, the mortality rate for all types of cancer combined has fallen by 25% over the past 20 years.

The death rates for breast cancer have followed the same downward trajectory, steadily decreasing since 1989. Early screening, including mammograms, along with new and more effective treatment protocols are credited with this hopeful trend. Since the Breast Cancer Awareness campaigns were launched in 1985, early detection has been the mantra for healthcare professionals, activists and survivors. Mammograms have played a huge role in the crusade to save lives through early detection and treatment.

In the early 1900s, German surgeon Albert Salomon is credited with first using x-rays in an attempt to diagnose breast cancer. He recognized the importance of compressing the breast to get a clearer image. Many others followed with innovative improvements, but the concept is basically the same today. During a mammogram, the breasts are compressed between two flat surfaces, spreading the breast tissue out as much as possible during the x-ray in order to display a clear and detailed image on a computer screen.

Mammograms play an important role in early breast cancer screening by finding tumors too small to be found through a physical exam. By doing this, it is believed many lives are saved. Healthcare professionals and early detection advocates stress that finding the tumor as early as possible, while still small and contained, greatly increases the odds for successful treatment.  Mammograms are also used as a diagnostic tool to help determine if there is breast cancer after a lump or other sign or symptom has been discovered.

While not exactly a pleasant procedure, a mammogram is relatively quick, generally lasting about 20 minutes. Some worry about radiation exposure, but it is actually very slight. The statistics for mammograms reducing the risk of dying as a result of breast cancer range from 25-40%. Most recommendations are that women should begin yearly mammograms at age 40, or earlier, if they are at high risk.

This brings us to the controversy that has surrounded the use of mammograms since 2009 when the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommended changing the starting age for women with average risk to age 50 instead of 40. Many argued that this was motivated by insurance companies not wanting to pay for the testing, but others voiced concerns that mammograms are not perfect and produce false negatives as well as false positives. Another faction argues that these tests result in over-diagnosis and over-treatment of conditions that would never pose a true health risk.

There was considerable push-back within the healthcare community. The American Medical Association, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the American College of Radiology, the American Cancer Society, the National Cancer Institute and the National Comprehensive Cancer Network published guidelines stating that all women, regardless of perceived risk, should begin mammogram screening at age 40.

There is no arguing the life-saving potential of early detection through mammograms. However, the best advice is always to be your own health advocate. There’s far too much at stake in not being as knowledgeable about whatever issue you are dealing with, especially one as serious as cancer. The only decision that you should ever make when it comes to your healthcare is an informed decision.

Should You Avoid Fish Oil While Getting Chemotherapy?

Anyone who ever picks up a book on healthy diet or listens to a talk show featuring one of the more well-known nutritionists knows that fish oil is a good thing. It isn’t pleasant to take, but we are advised to push past that because it has so many health benefits. But is that true across the board? What about the questions that have been raised about interference with chemotherapy treatment? 

Without a doubt, fish oil is an excellent source for omega-3 fatty acids and is one of those supplements that has gotten a lot of attention here. Omega-3 is vital for cells to properly function but is not produced by the body, which means that it must be provided by diet or through supplements.

Cardiovascular health issues have been prime motivators in researching omega-3 fatty acids. There has been a lot of interest in the fact that heart disease in Japanese men is less than a third of what it is for men in the U.S. Research seems to indicate that it has a lot to do with the amount of fish eaten by Japanese as compared to Americans. Beyond heart issues, the list of health benefits attributed to fish oil is long. Really long. As with most supplements, the entries will vary depending upon whose list it is, but some of less controversial of those are:

  • Support healthy cholesterol
  • Maintain normal triglyceride levels
  • Maintain already normal blood pressure
  • Promote joint health
  • Assist with weight management
  • Promote eye health
  • Support a healthy respiratory system
  • Enhance mental focus
  • Maintain muscle mass in older adults
  • Strengthen the immune system

Those benefits are hard to argue with. Plus, when someone is diagnosed with cancer, one of the first things that everyone around them says is that they should start eating a healthier diet and take supplements to help the body remain strong during treatment. A supplement that has proven to help with the issues on this list would, understandably, jump to the top. Results from recent research, however, has found that this particular supplement may do more harm than good to cancer patients.

Experimenting with mice, researchers have observed that the fatty acid found in fish oil, as well as some types of fish, can make cancer cells resistant to chemotherapy. According to Christine Metz, director of the Laboratory of Medicinal Biochemistry at the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research in Manhasset, N.Y., “Our research shows that when you affect the membrane of cancer cells by altering the fats in the outer covering of the cell, you can make the membrane stiffer or more fluid. These fats can make it more difficult for chemotherapy to enter the cell or make the cell better at pushing the chemotherapy out of the cell.”

This is not definitive proof that fish oil interferes with chemotherapy in humans. There are even studies that claim exactly the opposite. It is hard to prove just how fish oil does affect chemotherapy in humans, because testing would require giving someone with cancer a substance that could interfere with treatment. Many healthcare professionals, however, advise their cancer patients to discontinue use of fish oil the day before, the day of and the day after their chemotherapy treatment.

To learn more about fish oil, watch the following video:

Helping Kids Understand Breast Cancer Diagnosis

There is nothing easy about the day that you are sitting in your doctor’s office or get the call on the phone and learn that you have breast cancer. No matter how many donations you have made, events you have attended to raise awareness or the number of pink tee-shirts in your closet, actually hearing the words “you have cancer” can be an overwhelming shock. For parents, that reaction is even more extreme. Personal fear and panic quickly turn to how this is going to affect their children.

How children respond to most things depends a lot upon their age and level of understanding. For some parents, there is the temptation to shield especially young children from those things they believe will be upsetting or more than they should have to deal with. While well-intentioned, this is nearly always a mistake. Kids pick up on way more than most parents realize. Something as serious as breast cancer is impossible to hide. If children are left out about what is actually going on, they will come up with some explanation on their own, which will often be far worse than the truth.

Understanding Brings Reassurance

Your children get their cues from you. During difficult times you are going to react to everyone and everything around you differently. Help them cope with these changes by bringing them into the conversation, so that they understand why this is happening. The depth of explanation and the language you use will change as appropriate but these are some suggestions that many have found helpful:    

  • Talk to them. Find out what they know about breast cancer and correct anything that is not accurate. Describe the process and what to expect from your treatment. Let them know that there may be difficult days for you, physically and emotionally. Encourage them to ask questions and talk about what they are feeling.
  • Cancer is not contagious. It’s amazing sometimes to learn what children have been thinking but too afraid to admit. Make sure that they know that no one else, including them, can catch cancer and that it’s still safe to touch and hug.
  • Not their fault. Children tend to be pretty self-centered and experience the world as revolving around them. Just like with divorce, without ever telling anyone, children often assume the burden of responsibility when something bad happens. Somehow, it must be their fault. It is important to be proactive in reassuring them that this is not true, because they may not ever express it on their own.
  • Be open with the “C” word. Diffuse a lot of the fear and anxiety by talking openly and matter-of-factly about cancer. If they see that this is something you are facing openly and with confidence, then they will take those cues and run with them. Talk to them about how they might share what is happening with their friends. Have conversations with teachers and other parents so that your children can feel comfortable talking to them, also.
  • Remind them they are loved. Battling breast cancer requires a lot of time, effort and focus. Sometimes there won’t be a lot left over for the kind of interactions with your children as before your diagnosis. Children may see this as being forgotten or even neglected. But, children are also amazingly resilient. Simply explaining that you still love them and that other family members will help make sure that their needs are taken care of will go a long way to making them feel safe.

Breast cancer is never a good thing, but even the darkest clouds can have that proverbial silver lining. Going through an experience like this can actually bring parents and children closer together and be an invaluable teaching opportunity about priorities and the strength of family.

How to Manage the Fatigue of Metastatic Breast Cancer

Devastated. Crushed. Shocked. These are just the beginning of a long list of emotions felt by those who have just learned that the cancer they thought they had beaten is not only back but that it has metastasized, meaning it has spread to a different organ in the body. Once this happens, the classification changes to stage IV and treatment becomes geared toward life extension rather than cure.

Metastatic breast cancer affects the entire body. When the cells migrate away from the point of origin, chances are they go to multiple locations and it will just be a matter of time before they are discovered. Symptoms for breast cancer that has metastasized vary depending on the location. Some of those manifest as:

  • In the bones, there may be pain, frequent fractures, constipation, fatigue or mental fogginess as a result of high calcium levels
  • In the lungs, shortness of breath, difficulty breathing, coughing, chest wall pain and extreme fatigue
  • In the liver, nausea, extreme fatigue, swelling in the stomach, feet and hands due to fluid collection, yellowing or itchy skin and fatigue
  • In the brain or spinal cord, pain, confusion, memory loss, headache, blurred or double vision, difficulty with speech, difficulty with movement and seizures.

Whether specifically listed or not, fatigue becomes a constant condition regardless of the location of metastatic breast cancer and is something that significantly affects quality of life. Ask someone with cancer how they feel and “disfigured” will almost always be part of their response. Cancer fatigue, though, is different from regular tiredness because, not only is it more severe and lasts longer, it is usually not relieved by sleep or rest. The level of fatigue is generally disproportionate to the amount of activity or exertion. Perhaps most significant of all, it is persistent and never seems to go away.

According to the National Institutes of Health, “Some studies have reported that fatigue in cancer patients has a greater negative impact on quality of life than all other symptoms, including nausea, pain and depression.”

Chronic fatigue affects all areas of an individual’s life as well as having a negative impact on family and friends. It is an important issue for anyone dealing with cancer in any of its stages but it is critical for someone with metastatic, stage IV, cancer. In the past, this diagnosis was treated mainly by keeping the patient comfortable. Today, however, even though there is not cure, it can be controlled for increasingly longer lengths of time. For this to include a decent quality of life, the related fatigue must be addressed.

The first place to start is to talk to your doctor. There may be drugs or medications that he can recommended to help alleviate some of the fatigue. That said, recent research has found that counseling and healthy lifestyle practices, including exercise and better dietary choices, are more effective in managing fatigue than drugs.

Some more specific tips are:

  • Manage your energy by planning and moderating activity.
  • Include extra calories if losing weight and make sure to get sufficient protein, 46 grams per day for women and 56 grams for men.
  • Drink plenty of fluids and avoid caffeine. If vomiting or experiencing diarrhea, extra fluids are essential.
  • Consider vitamin supplements but in addition to, not in place of, a healthy diet.
  • Regular, moderate exercise can go a long way in relieving anxiety and depression, as well as fatigue.
  • Mange stress by meditating, reading, listening to music, joining a support group or whatever brings relaxation.

If nothing seems to help, consult with your doctor to see if there might be an underlying medical condition that you are unaware of. Chronic fatigue can be overwhelming. Be sure to reach out to your medical team and your personal support system.

If you would like to learn more about this subject, please watch the following video:

Why is October Breast Cancer Awareness Month?       

For more than 30 years now, the month of October has seen a huge push to raise awareness about breast cancer. Created in 1985 through a joint effort between the American Academy of Family Physicians, Cancer Care, Inc. and the British chemical company, Imperial Chemical Industries, now AstraZeneca Healthcare Foundation, Breast Cancer Awareness Month has brought together healthcare workers, industry sponsors and activists spurred on by personal experiences with the cancer that affects 1 out of every 8 women in the U.S. sometime during her lifetime.

Failing, so far, in all attempts to find a way to prevent this pervasive and potentially deadly disease, focus was shifted to building awareness about the importance of early detection. Healthcare professionals believe that the number one best way to prevent and reduce deaths from breast cancer lies in finding it as early as possible and being able to take advantage of current state-of-the-art treatments. The earlier the detection, while still small and contained, the better the odds for successful treatment. To do that, awareness programs stress the importance of regular screening tests.

Predictions, for women in the U.S. during the calendar year, are for roughly 250,00 to be diagnosed with invasive breast cancer, which is where the cancer spreads to surrounding breast tissues. Of those, some 40,000 are expected to die during that same period. The good news is that death rates have been decreasing since 1989, just a few years after the first Breast Cancer Awareness Month. In addition to advances in quality and effectiveness of treatment, this trend has been attributed to increased awareness resulting in earlier detection through screening.

Women have been advised to do self-exams and have regular check-ups for any indication of breast cancer for years. The difference that screening has made is due to its ability to find and diagnose a disease before symptoms appear. Once a tumor is large enough to feel, it has had a chance to not only grow but also spread. Breast cancer detected through a screening is more likely to be much smaller and still confined to the point of origin. When breast cancer is found in its earliest stages, a woman has a better than 90% chance of long-term survival.

Pink Is Not Everyone’s Favorite Color

When the calendar flips from September to October, everything goes pink. The lights on the lawn bathe the White House with a rosy glow. Huge pink ribbons appear on everything from 747s and beer trucks to NFL helmets. Some police departments have even gone so far as to using pink handcuffs during October.

Not everyone, however, believes this is such a good thing. Heightened awareness has been beneficial, as evidenced by the lowering of the death rate from breast cancer. No one argues with that. What some do have issue with, though, is that the October campaign has become more of a marketing opportunity for companies. Plus, the millions of dollars collected could, perhaps, be better spent. They believe that it is time to shift the goal from awareness to action and funnel those dollars into research for preventing breast cancer and finding a cure for it and the many other types of cancer that affect so many.   

What are the Types of Breast Cancer?

Discovering a suspicious lump in your breast or learning that there may be an issue during a routine physical check-up is always frightening. Then, hearing that you do, indeed, have breast cancer is the nightmare scenario played out in the minds of women everywhere. Even though early detection and improved treatment protocols like learning what chemicals are cancer causing have greatly improved survival rates, learning that you have cancer is always terrifying. That is closely followed by a feeling of confusion and being overwhelmed by decisions that will need to be made.

Next to having confidence in your medical team and a strong support system, perhaps the best thing that can be done to give you back a sense of being in control is to learn as much as possible about your condition. A good place to start is with the cancer itself. Breast cancer is a complex disease that manifests in different ways. It can start in different areas of the breast, including the ducts, lobules or tissue in between, and it may initially be found in more than one location.

The first things your doctor will want to determine is the type of tissue where the tumor is located and whether it has spread beyond the breast. Breast cancer that has not spread is referred to as “in situ”, and those that have spread into surrounding areas are “invasive” or “infiltrating”. These factors play a role in identifying the type of cancer and the options for treatment.

The majority of breast cancers are carcinomas, which means that they start in the epithelial cells that line organs and tissues. Some are a specialized form of carcinoma, adenocarcinoma, that originate in the milk ducts or lobules (milk-producing glands) in the breast. Another type, sarcomas, are found in cells of the muscles, fat and connective tissues.

Types of breast cancer can be further differentiated according to whether they are non-invasive, invasive, recurrent and metastatic (spread from one organ to another), as well as characteristic or molecular subtypes. Some of these are:

  • Ductal Carcinoma in Situ – the most common type of non-invasive breast cancer
  • Invasive Ductal Carcinoma (infiltrating ductal carcinoma) – roughly 80% of all breast cancers are invasive ductal carcinomas
  • Tubular Carcinoma of the Breast – subtype of invasive ductal carcinoma but less aggressive and responds well to treatment
  • Medullary Carcinoma of the Breast – rare subtype of invasive ductal carcinoma, slow growing
  • Mucinous Carcinoma of the Breast – rare, less aggressive subtype of invasive ductal carcinoma that tends to affect women after menopause
  • Papillary Carcinoma of the Breast – also affects women after menopause but has more defined borders than mucinous carcinoma
  • Cribriform Carcinoma of the Breast – cells are found in the connective tissues of the breast in nest-like formations
  • Invasive Lobular Carcinoma – second most common type of breast cancer after invasive ductal carcinoma and tends to occur later in life
  • Inflammatory Breast Cancer – rare and very aggressive, presents a reddening and swelling of the breast instead of a distinct lump
  • Paget’s Disease of the Nipple – rare cancer in which cells collect in or around the nipple, often a sign that cancer is also present elsewhere in the breast
  • Phyllodes Tumors of the Breast – rare tumor cells that grow in a leaf-like pattern, some benign, some malignant and some borderline
  • Recurrent Breast Cancer – cancer that has returned to the same area following a period of time when none could be detected, considered advanced stage
  • Metastatic Breast Cancer – breast cancer that has migrated to another part or parts of the body, considered stage IV, the most serious
  • Male Breast Cancer – rare, less than 1% of total breast cancers, higher mortality rate due to later detection

The more you know about breast cancer, the better you will be able to be an active and informed participant in your treatment and recovery. If you don’t know, ask questions!

If you would like to learn more, please check out the following video!

Is Breast Reconstruction Surgery Safe for Breast Cancer Survivors? 

All types of cancers are accompanied by a nearly overwhelming list of stressors, and this may be even more true with breast cancer. Once the cancer itself has been faced and treated, there are additional emotionally charged issues to face. If one or both breasts have been removed, there is likely to be concern about altered appearance and questions about sexuality. This can also be true with removal of a lump that has left the breast misshapen. Since breast cancer can frequently strike younger women, there may be concern about having a family and how the cancer and treatment will affect that. One of the side effects of chemotherapy, for some women, is early menopause, which brings with it a whole other stress-filled list.

Breast cancer is a very personal disease and so are the decisions about what to do following treatment. Whether treatment included a double mastectomy or partial removal of tissue in only one breast, there is the question of reconstruction and all of the options available. One issue that should not be of concern is whether breast reconstruction surgery is safe for breast cancer survivors. Studies have shown that reconstruction does not cause breast cancer to come back. Plus, if the cancer does come back for another reason, reconstruction will not impede detection or cause problems with chemotherapy, radiation or other treatment.

Worry about the safety of reconstruction following cancer surgery aside, there are decisions to make. The first will be whether to have reconstruction surgery or not. Those who choose an alternate route will have the option of either using some form of breast form or prosthesis or simply “going flat”. With reconstruction surgery there may be the option to have the process started during the procedure to remove the breast or cancerous tissue, so it is important to consult with your surgeon well in advance.

Once the decision to have reconstruction is made, there will be many things to consider in order to decide what type will be best for you and your lifestyle. Some of the factors to consider when choosing between options include:

  • Immediate or delayed reconstruction
  • Implant or autologous (flap) reconstruction, which takes tissue from another area of the body to create a breast form
  • Overall health
  • Issues that might affect healing, such as smoking
  • Location of the cancer
  • Breast size
  • Extent of cancer surgery
  • Chemotherapy, radiation and other treatment programs and what stage they are in
  • The amount of tissue available for autologous reconstruction
  • Reconstructive surgery on one or both breasts
  • Importance of being able to match the look of the other breast
  • Cost and insurance coverage, especially if having surgery for unaffected breast
  • Recovery time
  • Effects on other parts of your body if tissue from there is used

Your surgeon will take these and other factors into consideration, explaining the potential benefits, risks and expectations, to help you make the choices that are best for you. These are very personal and individual decisions, and it will be important to take the time necessary to find the right options that work for you and your lifestyle.

Should People with Cancer Avoid Antioxidants?

Does it sometimes seem like the more we learn the less we know? That certainly appears to be the case when we look at the effects of antioxidants on cancer. For years, we have been hearing about the health-enhancing benefits of eating fresh fruits and vegetables, and one of the main rationales for that is because they contain antioxidants. These powerful substances protect our cells from unstable molecules known as free radicals, which are linked to cancer.

Free radicals have incomplete electron shells which are usually the result of exposure to something in the food we eat, the air we breathe, the medicines we take and the water we drink. Some of the more common contributors are fried foods, alcohol, tobacco smoke, pesticides and air pollutants. In the body, this process occurs most often when oxygen molecules become “radicalized” and try to steal electrons from other molecules which can lead to DNA damage. Over time, unless checked, this can result in cancer. As part of the normal processes that take place within the cells, the bodies antioxidants neutralize free radicals and prevent them from reaching the level sufficient to create cancerous cells.

This is all good, right? Antioxidants were hailed as super heroes by the health gurus, and supplement makers rushed to fill the gap for those who do not regularly consume the recommended antioxidant-containing fruits and vegetables. Even for those who didn’t naturally gravitate toward kale and spinach could appreciate something as vicious as cancer being held at bay by carrots and mangos.

So, the answer to “Should people with cancer avoid antioxidants?” should be an easy “no”, right? When it comes to cancer and, actually, with most things that have to do with disease and the human body, the answers are seldom easy and rarely clear-cut. Yes, the antioxidant properties found in beta-carotene, lycopene, lutein, vitamins C, E, and A can be very effective in counteracting free radical damage to the body’s DNA and, as a direct result, reduce the incidence of cancer. However, there have been studies over the past several decades that have indicated that antioxidants can actually accelerate cancer progression by short-circuiting one of the body’s own immune system responses to cells that have become malignant.

Dr. Martin Bergo, senior author of a Swedish study conducted on the effects of antioxidants on cancer tumors in mice wrote, “We found that antioxidants caused a threefold increase in the number of tumors, and caused tumors to become more aggressive. Antioxidants caused the mice to die twice as fast, and the effect was dose-dependent. If we gave a small dose, tumors grew a little. If we gave a high dose, tumors grew a lot.”

While supplementing the antioxidants that naturally occur in the body can help prevent cancer, the current research seems to indicate that the body’s immune system already has an intricate system in place to deal with precancerous cells. Flooding it with antioxidants when cancerous cells are already present can suppress the signals necessary to turn that system on which, in turn, allows these damaged cells to multiply.

Because of their wide-ranging health benefits, no one is recommending that we stop eating antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables. They may very well prevent cancerous cells from ever taking hold. If, however, you have been diagnosed with cancer or are especially vulnerable, it would be a good idea to discuss this with your doctor. Medical research makes new discoveries every day. It is more important than ever to have regular check-ups and discuss current thinking with your healthcare professional.

For those who wish to learn more about antioxidants, the following list comes from the National Institutes of Health as posted on the U.S. Department of Health & Human Resources website:

Beta-carotene is found in many foods that are orange in color, including sweet potatoes, carrots, cantaloupe, squash, apricots, pumpkin, and mangos. Some green leafy vegetables including collard greens, spinach, and kale are also rich in beta-carotene.

Lutein, best known for its association with healthy eyes, is abundant in green, leafy vegetables such as collard greens, spinach, and kale.

Lycopene is a potent antioxidant found in tomatoes, watermelon, guava, papaya, apricots, pink grapefruit, blood oranges, and other foods. Estimates suggest 85 percent of American dietary intake of lycopene comes from tomatoes and tomato products.

Selenium is a mineral, not an antioxidant nutrient. However, it is a component of antioxidant enzymes. Plant foods like rice and wheat are the major dietary sources of selenium in most countries. The amount of selenium in soil, which varies by region, determines the amount of selenium in the foods grown in that soil. Animals that eat grains or plants grown in selenium-rich soil have higher levels of selenium in their muscle. In the United States, meats and bread are common sources of dietary selenium. Brazil nuts also contain large quantities of selenium.

Vitamin A is found in three main forms: retinol (Vitamin A1), 3,4-didehydroretinol (Vitamin A2), and 3-hydroxy-retinol (Vitamin A3). Foods rich in vitamin A include liver, sweet potatoes, carrots, milk, egg yolks and mozzarella cheese.

Vitamin C is also called ascorbic acid, and can be found in high abundance in many fruits and vegetables and is also found in cereals, beef, poultry and fish.

Vitamin E, also known as alpha-tocopherol, is found in almonds, in many oils including wheat germ, safflower, corn and soybean oils, and also found in mangos, nuts, broccoli and other foods.

If you would like to learn about what foods contain the most antioxidants, please watch the following video: