I’ve been told that it’s Breast Cancer Awareness month, and people are wearing pink ribbons to somehow raise awareness. Were you aware of breast cancer? Yes? Ok, good. I will not be wearing anything pink, and I would like to see NFL players also not wearing anything pink. I will also not be involved in any Race for the Cure or any such thing. I think that if people are interested in curing cancer they can research the cures for cancer that already exist. Conventional cancer treatments, even though I may not like them, sometimes work. Expecting to find some universal cure for all breast cancer or even all forms of cancer seems a bit ridiculous as cancer isn’t a genetic or infectious disease. It’s what we call it when a series of cell mutations results in tumor that threatens the organism. The mutations aren’t always the same, so what can starve or kill one tumor may not work on another.
However, hormone receptor mutations are probably nearly universal in most forms of cancer. I’ve been reading Gary Taubes’ book, Good Calories Bad Calories, which blames cancer (as well as every other “disease of civilization”) on high levels of dietary carbohydrates. The ingestion of carbohydrates induces the secretion of insulin which tells the fat cells of your body to convert sugar in the blood into fat, thereby preventing you from having a dangerous and potentially lethal amount of sugar in your blood. Eating lots of carbs results in high levels of insulin and something called insulin-like growth factor (IGF). Taubes starts his section on cancer by noting the very low rates of cancer observed in populations eating traditional hunter-gather diets. He then talks about mutation and holds that the answer to cancer lies not in mutations themselves (as in worrying about chemicals that cause mutations), but in the hormonal/metabolic environment in which mutations are likely to succeed. He says:
Since the min-1970s, reseachers have identified many of the molecules that play a role in regulating the strength of the groth and proliferation signals that IGF communicates to the cells themselves. There are several differeing insulin-like growth factors, for insance, and they bind to specific IGF receptors on the surfaces of cells. The more IGF receptors on a cell’s surface, the stronger the IGF signal to the cell. If insulin levels are high enough, insulin will stimulate the IGF receptors and send IGF signals into cells as well as insulin signals.
IGF and its receptors appear to play a critical role in cancer. In mice, functioning IGF receptors are a virtual necessity for cancer growth, a discovery that Renato Baserga of Thomas Jefferson University says he “stumbled” upon in the late 1980s, after nearly forty years spent styding the growth processes of normal and cancerous cells. Shutting down the IGF receptor in mice will lead to what Baserga calls “strong inhibition, if not total suppression of [tumor] growth.” It is particularly lethal to those tumors that have already metastasized from a primary site elsewhere in the body.
Insulin appears to depress the concentration of IGF-binding proteins, and so high levels of insulin mean more IGF itself is available to effect cell growth-including that of malignant cells. Anything that increases insulin levels will therefore increasse the availability of IGF to the cells, and so increase the strength of the IGF proliferation signals. (Insulin has been shown to affect estrogen this way, too, one way in which elevated levels of insulin may potentially cause breast cancer.)
The role of IGF in cancer appears to be fundamental, albeit still controversial. As is the case with insulin, IGF has been found in the laboratory to enhance the growth and formation of tumor cells dirrectly; IGF signals prompt cells to divide and multiply. (This effect seems to be particularly forceful with breast-cancer cells when IGF and estrogen are acting in concert.) IGF has an advantage over other growth factors that might play a role in cancer because it can reach tumors either throught the bloodstream–after being secreted by the liver–or as a result of production by nearby tissue. There’s even evidence that tumors can stimulate their own further growth and proliferation by secreting their own insulin-like growth factors. In the early 1980s, cancer researchers discovered that tumor cells also overexpress IGF receptors, just as they overexpress insulin receptors. The surfaces of tumor cells have two to three times as many IGF receptors as healthy cells, which makes them all that much more responsive to the IGF in their immediate environment.
IGF and insulin can be viewed as providing fuel to the incipient fire of cancer cells and the freedom to grow without limit. The critical factor is not that diet changes the nature of cells–the mutations that lead to cancer–but that it changes the nurturing of those cells; it changes the environment into one in which cancerous and precancerous cells can flourish. Simply by creating “an enviromnent that favored, even slight, survival (rather than programmed cell death),” says the McGill University oncologist Michael Pollak, insulin and IGF would increase the number of cells that accumlate some genetic damage, and that would increase the number of their progeny that were likely to incur more damage, and so on, until cancer is eventually achieved. “When applied simultaneously to large numbers of at-risk cells over the many years,” notes Pollak, “even a small influence in this direction would serve to accelerate carcinogenesis.”
The bold is mine. There’s more in the book, and it seems that keeping insulin levels low by restricting carbohydrates may prevent and even cure most forms of cancer. If you don’t understand how I arrived at that conclusion or think I’m missing something, let me know. I am not an expert in the subject, and Taubes “isn’t a real scientist”, so there may be more to the story. However, I’m highly motivated to remove most carbs from my diet, including beer, which is kind of a big deal for me. I highly recommend the book, but if it seems a bit too egg-headed for you, know that he’s got a much more accessible book due out in January called, Why We Get Fat and What To Do About It.
How’s that for raising awareness? Are you aware of something now that you weren’t 20 minutes ago?