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Mastering Cancer Prevention with Integrative Medicine by Malathi Acharya, MD

In the dynamic health and wellness field, integrative medicine has emerged as a harmonious blend, combining the latest advancements of Western allopathic medicine with holistic insights from various complementary and alternative systems. This amalgam addresses the physical aspects of health and considers emotional, mental and environmental factors that contribute to our health, making it a comprehensive approach for the prevention and management of cancer. 


WHO data suggest that 30-50% of cancer deaths are preventable. In 2023, the US experienced 1.9 million new cancer cases. The lifetime risk of developing cancer was 40%. The need for effective prevention is evident. By focusing on the whole person and leveraging the strengths of diverse health systems, integrative medicine offers a proactive and personalized strategy for cancer prevention.


Diet and Nutrition: A Cornerstone of Cancer Prevention


Our dietary choices play a pivotal role in cancer prevention. A standout recommendation is the Mediterranean diet, which studies have found to reduce all-cause cancer mortality by 16% and overall cancer risk by 19%. This dietary pattern allows for flexibility based on individual culinary and cultural preferences. It emphasizes various vegetables and fruits along the entire color spectrum, especially those in the cruciferous family, like broccoli, cabbage and kale. The diet also includes nuts, seeds, healthy fats such as olive oil, whole grains, beans, legumes and an assortment of spices. And it incorporates oily fish (salmon, mackerel, anchovies, sardines, herring), which are rich in omega-3 fatty acids and have significant anti-inflammatory effects. 


For cancer prevention, it's also advisable to avoid foods such as processed meats (bacon, ham), which are Group 1 carcinogens, and red meat, a Group 2A carcinogen. Also, reducing the intake of sugar-sweetened beverages, trans fats, excess salt and oils with a high omega-6 to omega-3 ratio (like sunflower, corn, soybean, grapeseed and safflower oils) is beneficial for cancer prevention.


Remarkably, meal timing can affect cancer risk. Eating evening meals earlier, preferably before 9 pm or at least two hours before bedtime, can reduce the risk of breast or prostate cancer by 20%, highlighting the importance of aligning mealtimes with natural circadian rhythms for cancer prevention.



Beyond Fitness: How Diverse Physical Activities Shield Against Cancer

Physical activity is another powerful tool in cancer prevention. Regular exercise reduces the risk of at least 10 types of cancer, including breast, colon, endometrial, kidney, liver, lung, ovarian, pancreatic, stomach and esophageal cancers.


Insulin resistance, familiar in the context of diabetes, is also intricately linked to cancer. Excessive carbohydrate consumption and consequent high glucose levels in the blood can lead to an overproduction of insulin. Over time, cells may become resistant to insulin, leaving excess glucose and insulin in the bloodstream. This excess insulin stimulates the liver to produce insulin-like growth factors, promoting cell growth and potentially leading to cancer.


Sleep: An Integral Component in Cancer Prevention

Studies have consistently shown a correlation between sleep duration and cancer risk, particularly breast cancer. The ideal amount of sleep is around 7 to 8 hours per night.


Shift work, which disrupts standard sleep patterns, presents a further risk. The irregular hours and altered sleep-wake cycles common in shift work have been linked to increased instances of breast cancer in women and prostate cancer in men. This increase is believed to be partly due to the disruption of melatonin production. Melatonin, a hormone produced in response to darkness, has protective properties against cancer. Therefore, anything that disrupts its normal production cycle, such as irregular sleep patterns or exposure to light during typical sleeping hours, may increase the risk of developing cancer.


Vitamin D: A Vital Ally in Cancer Prevention

Vitamin D plays a key role in cancer prevention and the outcomes of those with a cancer diagnosis. Ensuring normal levels of vitamin D not only reduces the risk of developing cancer but also decreases the likelihood of dying from it, particularly in cases of breast, colorectal and ovarian cancers. Regular monitoring and supplementation, if necessary, are essential.


Infections and Cancer: The Link

Certain infections, such as those caused by HPV, EBV, H. pylori, HIV, HHV-8, HTLV-1 and hepatitis viruses, are linked to increased cancer risk. Vaccinations and early treatments are effective preventive measures.



Stress Management: The Mental and Emotional Facets of Cancer Prevention

Addressing one's mental and emotional well-being — particularly managing chronic stress — is vital in cancer prevention. Chronic stress can lead to high levels of serum cortisol, weakening the immune system's effectiveness and reducing the body's natural ability to fight cancer. It can also cause DNA damage, increasing susceptibility to cancer, and contribute to persistent inflammation, creating an environment favorable for cancer growth.


To counteract these effects, incorporating effective stress management techniques into our daily routine is essential and can improve our overall mental, emotional and physical well-being.


Here are some key stress-management strategies:

  1. Breathwork: Deep breathing exercises are a simple yet powerful tool that has been shown to reduce cortisol levels, enhance relaxation and improve overall well-being.

  2. Mindfulness Practices: Mindfulness helps reduce the stress and anxiety that often result from dwelling on the past or worrying about the future. Techniques include focused attention on daily activities, mindful eating or practicing gratitude.

  3. Meditation: Regular meditation, even a few minutes daily, can lower cortisol levels, improve immune function and provide a sense of calm and balance.

  4. Time in Nature: Nature walks, gardening or simply sitting in a natural setting can help to reduce stress and promote a sense of peace.


Mindset: The Power of Positivity in Cancer Prevention

A positive mindset can be a potent tool in managing stress and reducing the harmful effects of chronic stress on the body. Furthermore, positivity is linked to healthier lifestyle choices. Individuals with a positive outlook are more likely to engage in activities that reduce cancer risk, such as regular exercise, healthy eating and adhering to medical advice and screenings. Feelings of hopelessness or helplessness are known to suppress the immune system, thus making it difficult to heal from cancer.


Spirituality: A Pillar of Strength in Cancer Journies

Spirituality is a deeply personal aspect of the human experience. It encompasses a sense of connection that extends beyond oneself to others, nature and, for some, a higher power. This connection offers meaning and purpose that are distinct from traditional religious practices.


Spirituality and religious beliefs can reduce stress and enhance our sense of well-being. For cancer patients, spiritual well-being has been linked to a better quality of life and the ability to find joy amidst pain, fatigue and distress. Drawing on their spirituality, cancer survivors often experience profound personal growth despite the challenges of their diagnosis.


Conclusion: Embracing Mindful Attention for Cancer Resilience

Warding off the daunting threat of cancer doesn't necessarily require grand or exotic measures. The journey toward a healthier life and increased resilience against cancer lies in consistently paying mindful attention to numerous small yet significant lifestyle choices.


A holistic approach that balances many facets of health reduces cancer risk and enhances overall quality of life. Our daily, mindful decisions — covering everything from what we eat to how we cope with stress — collectively pave our path to a more cancer-resilient life.


Malathi Acharya, MD

Dr. Malathi Acharya is the Founder of Ayur Integrative Medicine in Silicon Valley, CA. She is passionate about all elements of a holistic (integrative) approach to health and wellness, including nutrition, lifestyle, supplements, botanicals, mind-body treatments and treatments from alternate medical systems.


With over 25 years of experience in the traditional Allopathic system, Dr. Acharya recognized the limitations of a disease-focused and medication-based model, so she pursued additional training in Integrative Medicine at the Andrew Weil Center. This transformative journey empowered her to maintain her well-being during the Covid pandemic. It inspired her to found Ayur Integrative Medicine, where she could apply and share her comprehensive health philosophy with others.


She is a Diplomate of the American Board of Integrative Medicine and Board certified in Internal Medicine and Hospice and Palliative Medicine. She is also certified in clinical hypnosis and trained in medical acupuncture and Heart Math biofeedback techniques.


In her free time, Dr. Acharya enjoys reading, growing (and, alas, killing many) houseplants, streaming shows on Netflix, and exploring new destinations. She enjoys travel as a way of connecting to nature.


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