Cancer and Metabolism, Cause and Effect

Cancer is the second leading cause of death in the US and projected to soon be the first according to the CDC. It is inevitable that we will all be affected by cancer in some way during the course of our lives. We are all susceptible. As a healthcare practitioner, I will be seeing this (and have been seeing this) whether I specialize in oncology or not. This realization has propelled me on a quest to better understand how I can help individuals with prevention before treatment, since prevention is the best medicine after all. The field of oncology continues to advance/evolve with the shifting goals of prolonging life, prolonging quality of life and allowing the body to live harmoniously with a susceptible cancer state. How are we then advancing in cancer prevention before the fact? What is the cause of cancer, what unites us all in this pathogenic process?

First off, what exactly is the definition of “metabolism”? We have all heard the story of the fast metabolizer and the slow metabolizer in many different contexts but neither offers a clear understanding of what metabolism actually is. Is speed even important? Not entirely. A simple (yet complicated) definition is: the sum of all chemical processes the body performs to maintain life and homeostasis (balance). This starts in the gut, what we place in our bodies and how these substances are ultimately processed into energy and waste. The type of food one eats, the variety of different foods, the state of the microbiome (gut flora), the ability of the liver to process following absorption and ultimately the distribution to each individual cell. Metabolism doesn’t end here. Each cell must take in nutritional factors, the organelles must then utilize these substances, particularly the mitochondria that process the food we eat into the great energy molecule ATP that drives all metabolic process.

Cancer is being understood as a breakdown in metabolism that leads to a disruption of homeostasis. Our bodies, even at the cellular level, are highly adaptive and make attempts to continue life despite irreversible damage or breakdown in normal metabolism. In a balanced system, these “broken cells” get eliminated through a process of apoptosis (programmed cell death). This same process interestingly maintains our body in its current arrangement and appearance. Cancer cells can “learn” how to shunt metabolism into an anaerobic (no oxygen) processing of glucose/sugar when the mitochondria, nucleus and/or cell membrane are not functioning well and have avoided apoptosis. This phenomenon is known as the Warburg Effect named after the founder who studied cancer cells in the 20s and 30s. This is the most consistent phenotype seen in nearly all known cancers. This is why a PET scan (radioactively labeled glucose) is so important for cancer diagnosis. We have known that there is metabolic breakdown in cancer for a long time but that has not made treatment any simpler. Once a cell reaches this pathologic metabolic state, it can be very hard to eliminate entirely from the body.

If we can begin thinking about prevention in a broader sense, we can possibly keep these cells from achieving this state entirely. There are genomic (genetic) factors that can make this challenging, but one thing we have learned about genomics: they are not absolute (you may hear me say, “we are not slaves to our genetics”). We can also begin working on optimization of our individual metabolic states: diet, microbiome, liver health, toxicity, stress/emotional state, autoimmunity, infections, insulin resistance/diabetes, generalized body inflammation.

One powerful tool that is gaining momentum in shifting metabolism away from cancer promotion and inflammation is ketosis, the burning of fat for fuel. A similarly rising tool is intermittent fasting, which is essentially starving the energy production of discordant damaged cells through transcending insulin/glucose dependent energy production. Our body, in a healthy state, is highly adaptive; these shifts in metabolism have naturally supported our survival for many generations when food was scarce.

There are, of course many ways to individually tailor metabolic approaches safely, effectively and comfortably while still enjoying food and life. Large changes in metabolism should be done under the supervision of a doctor or nutritionist. Contact Revolutions Naturopathic to set up an appointment with one of our doctors at 916-351-9355 or