Just about the worst news a patient can get is that cancer cells have spread from the original tumor to other parts of the body. This process, called metastasis, does not have a good prognosis.
Early stage cancer is almost always treatable and you can often get rid of it altogether. Metastatic cancer – the more advanced stage — is a much more serious problem.
So you want to do everything you can to prevent metastasis or slow it down if you’ve got it. Fortunately, there’s a lot. . . and most of the options would benefit all of us whether we have cancer or not.
A study at the Brain Metastasis Group at the Spanish National Cancer Research Center shows that silibinin, an extract from the herb milk thistle, can reduce brain lesions linked to cancer metastases. And unlike most conventional treatments for cancer, silibinin doesn’t cause harmful side effects.
The brain is a common target of cancer cells looking for new sites to colonize. According to the Spanish researchers, from 10% to 40% of cancerous tumors in the body lead to metastases that invade the brain — with often fatal results.
Until now, the primary conventional treatment for these brain tumors has been surgery, radiotherapy and immunotherapy. But only about one of five cancer patients successfully recover with the help of those methods.
Special mechanism blocks metastasis
A big problem, the Spanish researchers found, is that astrocytes, immune cells that roam the brain, can help the cancer cells survive in brain tissue. But astrocytes are only the evil accomplices of cancer when one of their genes – called STAT3 – is activated.1
Silibinin can block this activation.
And when the investigators tested silibinin on people with lung cancer, they found that 75% of the time the herbal extract helped slow the development of metastatic tumors in the brain. Plus, survival time in this group of patients was four times that of people who didn’t receive silibinin.
There are many milk thistle products available on the market. My quick search did not turn up a pure silibinin supplement, and I don’t know how rich the general milk thistle supplements are in the specific silbinin extract. But I did find a Life Extension product called European Milk Thistle: Silymarin-Silibinins-Isosilybin A & B that specifically claims to contain this compound.
Turn off the lights
An easy, do-it-yourself way to lower the risk of cancer spreading is to make sure you sleep in a totally dark room at night.
That’s right – all you have to do is make sure your bedroom is pitch black at night. Researchers at Tulane have demonstrated that if somebody with breast cancer sleeps in a room that is even dimly lit, the exposure to light can increase the risk that cancer will spread into their bones.
You need darkness at night to help the daily circadian rhythms of your cells function properly and prevent the migration of cancer cells.2
“Exposure to dim light at night induces circadian disruption, which then increases the formation of bone metastatic breast cancer,” says researcher Muralidharan Anbalagan, who teaches at the Tulane University School of Medicine.
“This is important,” he added, “as many patients with breast cancer are likely exposed to light at night as a result of lack of sleep, stress, excess light in the bedroom from mobile devices and other sources, or night shift work.”
By keeping light out of the room you sleep in, you encourage the secretion of the anti-cancer hormone melatonin. “Our research identified the importance of an intact nocturnal circadian melatonin anti-cancer signal in suppressing bone-metastatic breast tumor growth,” says Dr. Anbalagan.
Eating habits that help prevent metastasis
What you eat and drink also affects your metastatic risk. According to biomedical engineers at Duke University, anyone with cancer should avoid foods that contain high-fructose corn syrup.
Of course, I believe — and there’s plenty of research to back this up — that anyone who wants to be healthy should avoid food and drinks containing corn syrup.
According to the Duke studies, when cancer cells start to roam, they may seek out the liver to feast on, because fructose accumulates in that organ if your diet has been rich in high-fructose corn syrup.
The Duke study focused on cancer cells from tumors in the colon. The researchers found that although these wandering cancer cells are still genetically identical to what they were in the digestive tract, when they sense fructose in the liver, they undergo epigenetic effects – genes are activated that allow the cancer cells to gorge on the liver’s supply of fructose.3
“Genetically speaking, colon cancer is colon cancer no matter where it goes,” says researcher Xiling Shen, “but that doesn’t mean that it can’t respond to a new environment (like the liver). We had a hunch that such a response might not be genetic, but metabolic in nature.”
Dr. Shen notes that certain metabolic genes became more active in liver metastases than they were in the original primary tumor. It seems that when the liver has been stocking up on fructose, the rich pickings stimulate the genes in the cancer cells that help them use fructose to fuel their functions.
So if you’ve been eating the typical American diet, full of soft drinks and other sweet treats flavored with high fructose corn syrup, you are filling your body with cancer’s favorite food.
“When cancer cells get to the liver, they’re like a kid in a candy store,” warns Dr. Shen. “They use this ample new energy supply to create building blocks for growing more cancer cells.”
Control stress to control cancer
While folks who study cancer have long suspected that stress can increase your risk for the spread of cancer, it’s only within the last year or so that researchers have started to untangle some of the specific factors that lead from stress to metastasis.
In lab tests on breast cancer conducted at the University of Basel in Switzerland, researchers discovered that the stress hormones cortisol and corticosterone interact with receptors on cancer cells that help the cells colonize other organs. The hormones also help the cells survive and proliferate in various organs around the body.4
At the same time, researchers at the University of Illinois have found that epinephrine, another stress hormone, initiates a whole series of biochemical reactions that spurs on the growth of breast cancer and encourages its metastatic spread.5
These researchers conclude that controlling stress is a key way to control the spread of cancer. The Basel researchers suggest exercising along with relaxation techniques like meditation to limit stress. And findings by the scientists in Illinois indicate that vitamin C may help. Their lab tests found evidence that vitamin C may be able to shrink metastatic tumors.
Don’t wait to adopt these healthy habits
I think that when researchers perform more studies on how to protect against metastases, they’ll probably also find that eating a diet filled with fruits and vegetables can up the body’s defenses against metastases. So far, only a few studies have found that this kind of diet reduces your risk of aggressive cancer. The evidence is not quite definitive.6 But I wouldn’t wait to adopt a diet rich in fresh produce.
And for sure it’s a good idea to sleep in a dark bedroom, take some vitamin C, and control stress through exercise and meditation. Those habits all have multiple health benefits along with their anti-cancer characteristics.
I also feel confident in recommending regular milk thistle supplementation. It’s healthy for a whole list of reasons besides its effect on cancer. I take a daily milk thistle supplement myself.