Our Chemical (Toxic) Burden, Finale
The final post on the EWG Report. This post covers the 10 Hallmarks of Cancer and how cancer cells deviate from the norm.
Time for the final installment of your toxic burden series. The previous two posts talked about the different toxins and questioned how these toxins might interact to create a more powerful effect than any one toxin alone, or even in combination with otherwise non-toxic chemicals. Look, I hated science in high school, so I’m no chemist. Although I have always had a knack for the less creative subjects, my interest in science has only peaked over the last several years; enough so that all of this deeply concerns me.
The final section of the EWG report is called The Hallmarks of Cancer. Much of the report is based on the Halifax Project. The Halifax Project is a consortium of hundreds of scientists and physicians from around the world who came together to explore low dose environmental exposure to chemicals and the link to the cancer risk. They found that 59% of the chemicals studied affect cancer hallmark processes at low doses. The more compelling aspect of the project was the suggestion that mixtures of chemicals, even those not known to be carcinogenic on their own, could cause cancer by disrupting multiple mechanisms known as the hallmarks of cancer. Of the 85 hallmark pathway disrupting chemicals studied, 34 were found in Americans’ bodies.
What are Cancer Hallmarks?
I must say, I had to do some deeper digging to obtain an understandable definition of a cancer hallmark. I found it on EWG’s website in their research section in an article titled Hallmarks of Cancer, written by Dr. Buddhini Samarasingh for Scientific American, published in 2013. Here is the definition provided:
“The Hallmarks of Cancer are ten anti-cancer defense mechanisms that are hardwired into our cells, that must be breached by a cell on the path towards cancer.”
They are behaviors within healthy cells that become disrupted, causing the cell(s) to mutate. From there, if the body is not supported through healthy diet and lifestyle, the cells continue to mutate and grow into tumors and cause other damage to the body. This is where we get into the simple science stuff behind how cancer grows. I say simple, because cancer is a very complex subject, but I’m going to go through them at the 30,000-foot level here. No two cancers are the same and just having a basic understanding takes volumes to convey. The 10 cancer hallmarks may or may not sound familiar to you if you have done any research into cancer. Since this blog series is meant to impress upon you the gravity of the effect of chemicals on our bodies, I will not delve into the hallmarks. Rather, I will list them for the purpose of showing you just how dangerous they are to our health.
1. Cancer cells can grow and divide on their own. Unlike normal, healthy cells, cancer cells do not need a village to survive and thrive. Normal healthy cells require outside influences such as growth factors (proteins) to initiate cell growth. As you see below, however, they do have ways of engaging the help of other cells to proliferate into tumors.
2. Cancer cells are self-perpetuating monsters. Normal, healthy cells go through a growth and division cycle. There is a point in this cycle if the cell detects that it has damaged DNA it stops the replication process. Cancer cells have developed ways to bypass this amazing process. They can avoid the gatekeeper and take on stem cell like properties, generating new mutated (cancer) cells.
3. Cancer cells can avoid the normal programmed cell death experienced by normal, healthy cells. Our cells know when to die; a process called apoptosis. Cancer cells can avoid apoptosis mostly through mutation of the gatekeeper that tells cells with DNA damage to die.
4. Unlike normal, healthy cells, cancer cells can replicate uncontrollably. Our cells are pre-programmed with information stored in our telomeres (the end caps of our chromosomes) to divide a certain number of times and then stop. Typically, if this goes haywire, there is a fail-safe that causes the cell to die rather than keep going. Cancer cells can short-circuit this system due to DNA damage to the telomeres which is caused in large part by oxidative stress. If you’ve heard of free radicals, these are a cause oxidative stress.
5. Cancer cells manipulate healthy cells into providing them with the means to grow. Angiogenesis is the process by which healthy cells band together to feed areas that need extra help, like wound healing and fetal growth. Except for normal physiological processes like wound healing and menstruation, angiogenesis does not occur in adults. However, cancer cells, already mutants, are lacking in the mechanisms that stop angiogenesis and can utilize the systems that promote angiogenesis.
If I’m losing you halfway through, just think of it like cancer cells being viruses in your computer. They wear the Harry Potter invisibility cloak to keep their internal, mutated processes from being detected and, at first, silently troll around until they have a big enough army to cause some real damage to the host – you.
6. Which brings us to metastasis – the cancer’s ability to trek out and find new territories to rape and pillage after sucking up all the resources at its home base. Kind of like large countries that move around taking over smaller countries and opposing their will upon them until they’ve sucked up all the resources; only to move on to yet another. The cancer cell, through all its mutations is almost like a shape-shifter now. It can revert to properties held by embryonic cells to move around and then re-anchor themselves. Having this ability turns a cancer cell into a cancer stem cell that can evade chemotherapy and live to move on to wreak havoc elsewhere in the body. The worst part? Metastasis is not limited to advanced stages of tumor growth, but can occur early in the growth process by coopting the help of otherwise normal cellular processes.
7. Oxygen is necessary for healthy cells to survive, but not so much cancer cells. Think about it, you can go weeks without food, days without water, but only minutes without air (oxygen). Healthy cells require oxygen to generate the energy needed to perform their normal functions. When there is a shortage of oxygen, cells turn to glucose for energy production. This process, however, does not produce nearly as much energy as oxygen as it is much less efficient. Cancer cells prefer the inefficient process using glucose. Cancer cells can convert glucose to energy way faster than normal cells. Since normal cells prefer oxygen, the cancer cells can capitalize on the availability of glucose; burning and churning out new cells. Additionally, the process creates byproducts the cancer cell uses to feed its growth requirements.
8. So, by now you’re asking, if our body is so genius and complex, why can’t the healthy cells detect these mutant cells and destroy them? Put simply, cancer cells can use that Harry Potter cloak to evade the immune system. This is an ongoing area of research looking at the cancer cell’s ability to stop dividing and growing (lie dormant). It is thought that when dormant, the cell stops producing the protein that natural killer cells look for when on patrol. Once the coast is clear, which can be years later, the cancer starts growing again. Other research indicates that the back and forth communication between the T cells that seek out cancer cells allows the active cancer cells to develop adaptations for survival. What is known is that for the most part, a healthy immune system is equipped to seek and destroy most cancer cells.
9. Survival of the fittest and evolution concepts apply to cancer cells as well as healthy cells. Evolution has resulted in positive changes to our DNA to make us who we are today. Cancer cells take advantage of this same process within their ranks as well. Those that are smarter, more able to evade the immune system and survive are more likely to reproduce more cancer cells just like it, and even become more resistant to drug treatment. Mutations occur with healthy cells as well as cancer cells. Mutations to healthy cells can occur spontaneously, as a free radical byproduct of oxygen use by the body, as well as from exposure to harmful chemicals and radiation. Luckily, part of the cell growth and division process includes that gatekeeper that signals damage and directs the cell to repair the DNA. But these same protections in healthy cells are not present in cancer cells.
10. Finally, we get to inflammation. A topic that you no doubt keep hearing more and more about. Inflammation plays a critical role in cancer development. But what is inflammation? Put simply, inflammation is the body’s response to injury. Temporary inflammation from an injury is not problematic. Chronic inflammation from infection, environmental pollutants, persistent activation of inflammatory proteins, or autoimmune reactions is a problem and increases the risk of cancer. Remember how I said cancer cells need a support system? Well, if you think of cancer as a wound that never heals you can also think of it as always requiring a support system. Cancer cells can surround themselves with immune cells that secrete the growth factors needed for wound healing. Again, coopting the system for its benefit.
What Does This All Mean?
In a nutshell, cancer cells have taken existing functions that occur in limited situations, and exploited them. They live by the exception, rather than the rule. Think of all the mutations involved in cancer cells as the exceptions. They band together and become the new rule. They are switching on processes that are reserved for emergencies.
And what does this all have to do with our chemical soup? It is estimated that only 8% or so of cancers are genetically based. The other 92% are caused by environmental factors. Environmental factors include diet and lifestyle, as well as the toxins we eat, drink and breathe every day.
I also referenced a healthy immune system being able to kill cancer cells. But this requires a healthy immune system. If you look around you are hard-pressed to find people who aren’t suffering some sort of immune system-based disease. Autoimmune symptoms abound and are exacerbated by chronic infections, obesity, smoking, alcohol consumption, environmental pollutants and high fat diets, all of which are recognized as major risk factors for most common types of cancer through inflammation.
Yours in Wellness,