A diagnosis of cancer strikes fear in us all and unfortunately the risk of developing cancer is increasing but there are things we can do to reduce the risk of developing cancer, just like there are herbs and supplements that can support and improve outcomes of conventional treatment.
With that in mind, today I wanted to discuss kidney cancer. The American Cancer Society says that kidney cancer statistics are on the rise and have been increasing since the 1970’s. Interestingly enough the rate of chronic kidney disease (CKD) is also rising, which makes sense when you look at the similarities between the risk factors of CKD and kidney cancer.
Let’s start with having a closer look at kidney cancer.
What is cancer?
In general terms, cancer is an abnormal growth of cells that multiply and grow in an uncontrolled way, and in some cases spread from their original location. Cancer cells don’t act alone. They enlist the body’s normal cells, molecules, and blood vessels in their efforts to survive and spread.
Cancer cells don’t abide by the same checks and balances that normal cells are controlled by. They switch on and off certain genes and proteins in the body, create their own blood vessels to get nutrients for growth and have little tricks that let them hide from our immune system so they can’t be detected.
Types of kidney cancer
There are several types of kidney cancer:
Renal cell carcinoma: the most common type of adult kidney cancer (accounting for 80-90% of all cases).
Urothelial carcinoma: also called transitional cell carcinoma and accounts for 5% to 10% of the kidney cancers diagnosed in adults. It is generally treated like bladder cancer because both types of cancer start in the same cells.
Sarcoma: Sarcoma of the kidney is rare. This type of cancer develops in the soft tissue of the kidney; the thin layer of connective tissue surrounding the kidney, called the capsule; or surrounding fat.
Wilms tumour: Wilms tumour is the most common in children. Wilms tumours make up about 1% of kidney cancers.
Signs and Symptoms of kidney cancer
In the early stages, kidney cancer often doesn’t produce any symptoms, as it gets larger some possible signs and symptoms include:
- Blood in the urine (haematuria)
- Low back pain on one side
- A mass (lump) on the side or lower back
- Loss of appetite
- Unexplained weight loss
- Fever that’s not caused by a virus or infection
- Swelling of the ankles and legs
Kidney cancer is most often treated with surgery, targeted therapy, immunotherapy, or a combination of these treatments.
Surgery: the removal of the tumour and some surrounding healthy tissues.
Sometimes surgery is not recommended because of characteristics of the tumour or the patient’s overall health. The following procedures may be recommended instead:
- Radiofrequency ablation- the cancer is destroyed with an electrical current.
- Cryoablation- freezing of the cancer cells.
Therapies using medication
Systemic therapy is the use of medication to destroy cancer cells. The types of systemic therapies used for kidney cancer include:
- Targeted therapy: a treatment that targets the cancer’s specific genes, proteins, or the tissue environment that contributes to cancer growth and survival. This type of treatment blocks the growth and spread of cancer while limiting damage to healthy cells.
- Immunotherapy: also called biologic therapy, is designed to boost the body’s natural defences to fight cancer. It uses materials made either by the body or in a laboratory to improve, target, or restore immune system function
- Chemotherapy: although chemotherapy is useful for treating most types of cancer, most cases of kidney cancer (particularly renal cell carcinoma) are resistant to chemotherapy so it’s often not used in those cases. Urothelial carcinoma and Wilms tumour are more likely to be treated with chemotherapy.
Risk factors for developing kidney cancer
The following factors may raise a person’s risk for developing kidney cancer- some of these we can’t do anything about (like our age or gender) but there are a number that we can work on in order to reduce our risk:
- Smoking- doubles the risk of developing kidney cancer
- Gender- men are 2 to 3 times more likely to develop kidney cancer than women
- Age- typically found in adults and is usually diagnosed between the ages of 50 to 70
- Overweight/Obesity- excess weight is strongly linked to the development of kidney cancer. Adipose (fat) tissue secretes inflammatory proteins which contribute to the onset and development of kidney cancer
- High blood pressure- damages the capillary network in the kidneys, which makes the kidney more prone to abnormal cell growth
- Alcohol consumption
- Diabetes- diabetes increases the risk factor of many cancers including kidney cancer and is believed to be related to insulin resistance, high insulin levels, increased inflammation and oxidative stress
- Exposure to cadmium
- Exposure to asbestos
- Chronic kidney disease
- Long-term dialysis
- Family history of kidney cancer
- Exposure to toxins and industrial by-products
- Consumption of red and processed meat
- Barbecuing and pan-frying meat
- Long term use of NSAIDs, acetaminophen and diuretics
As you can see from these risk factors, people with CKD are at a higher risk of developing kidney cancer, not just because CKD is a risk factor itself but also because diabetes and high blood pressure are more common in people with CKD which further exacerbates the risk.
Reducing the risk of kidney cancer
You might have noticed that CKD and kidney cancer share a number of the same risk factors so working to reduce your risk of developing kidney cancer will also help to reduce the progression of CKD- definitely a win win situation!
- Stop smoking
- Eliminate alcohol
- Manage your blood pressure
- Manage blood sugar levels
- Eliminate red and processed meat from your diet
- Avoid toxin exposure as much as possible
- Maintain a healthy weight and exercise regularly
- Avoid foods that may damage the kidneys, especially foods that contain preservatives, artificial colourings and hormones
The role of complementary medicine
Let me start with a gardening analogy I like to use with my clients. Think of cancer as a weed and your body as the soil that cancer might try to grow in. Healthy soil is more likely to promote growth of plants and flowers while unhealthy soil promotes growth of weeds (cancer). Conventional therapies like chemotherapy or surgery work to remove the weed which is obviously helpful and necessary BUT doesn’t take into account the soil.
No matter how powerful treatments are at killing the cancer (the weed), they will not succeed as long as the body (soil) provides the food and fodder for cancer to do what it does best: grow, evade programmed cell death, and spread.
So, what we need to do is make the soil (our body) inhospitable to cancer and this is where natural medicine really shines. Many of the healing practices that natural medicine promotes including diet, physical activity, natural supplements and stress management help to modify the terrain and sometimes specifically the tumour microenvironment, making the body inhospitable to cancer.
There are some key areas that need to be addressed because cancer thrives when any of these are out of balance:
- Oxidative stress
- Blood coagulation (blood clotting or stickiness)
- Glycaemia (elevated blood sugar)
Today I wanted to highlight a few key supplements that have anti-cancer benefits while also changing the soil of the body, making it less hospitable to cancer.
Conventional treatments generally target one dysregulated gene or signalling pathway which is great but doesn’t take into account the numerous different genes, inflammatory factors and signalling pathways that are responsible for cancer growth and spread.
Curcumin targets multiple different dysregulated genes, inflammatory markers, growth factors and cell signalling pathways. As a result of being able to target so many pathways, curcumin can inhibit how quickly a cancer cell divides, block cancer cell growth and spread and prevents the formation of new blood vessels that tumours create to get the nutrients they need to continue to grow.
Curcumin also induces something called apoptosis of cancer cells which is sort of a process of self-suicide of cancer cells. Apoptosis is frequently switched off in cancer which is part of its ability to continue to grow out of control. Curcumin targets many of the same pathways that cancer drugs target as well as many that we don’t have approved medications/therapies for yet.
One of the functions of our immune system is to identify and eliminate cancer cells so obviously for cancer to develop something has to have gone awry there. Cancer itself and conventional treatments like chemotherapy and radiation weaken the immune system so part of tending to the ‘soil’ is working on up-regulating immune function.
It is well established that mushrooms are strong immune stimulators and have been shown to increase white blood cell production and function and are capable of interfering with particular pathways that are linked to cancer development and progression. Over the last 40 years, extensive research has shown that mushrooms have potent anti-cancer properties that slow growth of tumours, regulate tumour genes and decrease tumour blood vessel growth.
By activating immune cells and improving the immune systems cancer detecting abilities, the immune system is more capable of doing what it’s meant to do- identify and eliminate cancer cells. Some of the best cancer fighting mushrooms include reishi, cordyceps, shiitake, maitake, turkey tail and chaga.
Astragalus is widely used in Traditional Chinese medicine to treat cancer. The power of astragalus as an anti-cancer herb comes from its immune stimulating activity and its direct effects against cancer cells including suppression of factors that initiate cancer, inhibiting growth of cancer cells, preventing the formation of new blood vessels that promote cancer growth, increasing cancer cell death and blocking migration of cancer cells to other parts of the body.
Astragalus is also one of the most widely used herbs in TCM for treating kidney disease so has a dual action of not only being an anti-cancer herb but also a great kidney restorer.
Vitamin D has traditionally been thought of only as a bone building nutrient, but it is so much more than that!
Not only do higher vitamin D levels reduce the likelihood of developing kidney cancer but many studies have found that vitamin D has several activities that may slow or prevent the development of cancer including decreasing cancer cell growth, stimulating cell death, and reducing tumour blood vessel formation.
Green tea and green tea extracts have numerous health benefits when it comes to cancer prevention and treatment AND kidney disease. Epigallocatechin-3-gallate (EGCG) is one of the primary ingredients in green tea that is the most studied in cancer treatment.
Among its many actions, EGCG up-regulates the p53 tumour suppressor gene, which is the most frequently mutated gene in human cancers, mutated p53 does not effectively suppress abnormal cell growth. EGCG promotes death of tumour cells, inhibits proliferation or growth of cancer cells and inhibits blood vessel formation that allows cancer cells to grow and metastasise.
EGCG is also a strong antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compound so helps with altering the ‘soil’ of the body to make the body more inhospitable to cancer while also protecting the kidneys at the same time.
Other things to consider
Now, there’s more to beating cancer and altering the ‘soil’ or terrain of your body than taking a few supplements. You also need to eat right, exercise, manage stress, reduce exposure to toxins and work on your mindset. All things that won’t only help support conventional treatment but also reduce the risk of recurrence.
Many people with cancer choose to take nutritional and herbal supplements without having a full understanding of the potential for interactions with conventional treatments. Not all supplements are safe for people with cancer to take, particularly if they are undergoing chemotherapy, immunotherapy or radiotherapy as there are some supplements that actually reduce the efficacy of conventional treatment.
If you are looking to combine conventional treatment with complementary therapies, it’s extremely important that you work with a naturopath or Traditional Chinese medicine practitioner who is experienced in supporting cancer patients, this will ensure you avoid any negative interactions between your supplements and conventional treatment while also making the most of the many positive interactions.
Hopefully I’ve been able to give you a deeper understanding of how complementary medicine can support your conventional treatment AND the importance of changing the ‘soil’ that allowed cancer to develop in the first place.
If you found this article helpful, please let me know by clicking the “SHARE” button below and feel free to comment and like it on our Facebook page.