Chronic inflammation and cancer

Dr Charles Akle

There are many triggers that induce the formation of cancer cells and in fact we all produce several hundred thousand abnormal cells every day. However, if our immune system is working well, these cells are recognised and destroyed. We call this “Elimination”.

With time and ongoing damage, the cancer manages to get a toehold and a balance forms between the formation of new cells and the body killing them off. This process we call “Equilibrium”. Prostate cancer in old men is a good example of a stable equilibrium in that the cancer causes little or no trouble, and the patient dies of old age with the cancer and not because of it.

If the cancer is able to beat the immune defences, it the enters a state of “Escape” and begins to spread and cause trouble. A good example of this is a condition called mesothelioma. This occurs when asbestos (used a lot in the past for lagging and insulating hot pipes as well as in things like brake pads) is inhaled. Asbestos is a mineral and shaped in tiny needles which damage the lungs and induce inflammation – the body’s way of trying to get rid it. Because it is impossible to remove, the body tries to wall it off by forming fibrous tissue around the needles and this produces a condition called “asbestosis”.  Unfortunately, after many years, the chronic inflammation results in the formation of malignant change in these fibrous cells resulting in a nasty cancer, mesothelioma, and once these escape the patient is doomed. It is the constant irritation that results in malignance after many years in this case.

These are the three “E”’s of cancer development. In each case, it is the relationship between the cancer and the immune system that decides the outcome. Anything that can keep your immunity on its toes is bound to be of benefit and the key is to help reduce the chronic inflammatory process so that the body wins.

There are many examples of such cancers and a common one in western society is colon and rectal cancer. In the USA, some 150,000 people will develop it each year, and there will be some 1.8million cases worldwide. It is the third commonest cancer and the second biggest killer. Whilst there is a hereditary tendency to develop this, there is no doubt that in general it is strongly related to diet and lifestyle and this is why we are so keen to harness the power of the microbiome and keep the immune system tuned. 

We know that patients with chronic ulcerative colitis (UC) have a higher risk of developing cancer and the longer they are affected, the greater the risk. In rough terms, if you have chronic UC for 20 years you have a cancer risk of 20%, and if for 30 years it rises to 30%. Colonic inflammation is a bad thing.

More worrying, is the recent observation from the US National Cancer Institute that the incidence of colon cancer is increasing in younger age groups and nearly one third of cases of rectal cancer are in those under 55. 

What can be causing this?

Usually, colorectal cancer is a disease of older people and those seen in the young tend to be the familial (genetic) kind. This observation is worrying because it is not all genetics and one has to look for an environmental cause. Clearly, it is likely to be related to lifestyle and diet. Eating foods that are processed and rich in the wrong fats as well as a poor fibre intake have long been suspected as culprits. The current improved understanding of the microbiome corroborates this and shows we need to really work at getting our gut in good order, hence the term “farming” the microbiome. You have to work at it!

Further evidence supports a possible role for aurum in that it has been shown that induced colitis and adenoma formation (these are precursors for cancer) are prevented in experimental models where stress is also prevented.

In summary, you need a well-tuned immune system, helped by a well-tended microbiome, and a good Natural environment allowing you to keep stress at bay if you are to remain healthy!