We have known for many years that cancer is a disease where genes misbehave and that different gene variants can significantly change a person’s risk of disease. So when The Cancer Genome project was set up we were optimistic that we would finally isolate the key genes that control the different cancers as a prelude to developing the right drugs to target their effects. Instead of discovering logical simplicity we uncovered chaotic complexity and realised that the mutations inside tumours are the random results of gene damage caused by the cancer process rather than predictable sequences of disease hallmarks. Moreover, we discovered that some tumours don’t have any genetic mutations present at all. It’s fair to say that a lot of hopes were dashed.
YOU CAN CHANGE GENE BEHAVIOUR
That project sparked a rethink of the role of genetics in tumour development. Since then we have learned that much of cancer’s bad behaviour is down to alterations to the way DNA is expressed, rather than alterations, or mutations, to the DNA structure itself. A new science of epigenetics has emerged which studies the way molecules that interact with the genome to affect genetic behaviour. Epigentic changes are responsible for a lot of health problems and, unlike genetic mutations, they can be reversed. Some of the more recent papers I’ve read are suggesting that the gene behaviour observed in cancer may be reversible too, leading to a hope that we may one day be able to treat cancer by rehabilitating cells, rather than trying to kill them.
It turns out that our genes are not the rigid blueprint we thought they were, they respond to the instructions we give them – instructions provided by the food we eat, the light we see, the exercise we take, the chemicals we are exposed to and the thoughts we think. The science looking at this area of genetic behaviour is a subset of epigenetics, called NUTRIgenetics. It looks at tiny variations in our genes, called Single Nucleotide Polymorphisms, or SNPs, that can create significant differences in the way respond to diet and lifestyle inputs.
DNA TESTING FOR BREAST CANCER
Of all the testing available, I believe nutrigenomics is uniquely relevant for cancer patients. It helps to explain why some people are more vulnerable to cancer than others; why some people respond differently to treatment; and why some people are more likely to reach the 5-year survival goal. The DNA tests that I commission on your behalf will provide you with six in-depth genetic reports looking at key areas for breast cancer: Core Nutrients, Hormone Balance, Detoxification, Metabolism, Methylation and Nervous System. Each of these reports is highly relevant to breast cancer onset, diagnosis and recovery, and a useful resource in its own right. But when analysed in the context of your diagnosis, personal health history and current circumstances it provides a powerfully personalised wellbeing plan.
The test results not only give us important information about the food and nutrients you need (or don’t need) but also provide significant insights into the ‘bigger picture’ of wellbeing. The insights will help you to make better lifestyle choices — sleep, stress, addiction, pesticides, alcohol, exercise, fasting, mood, motivation — by helping you to target the most important pathways for you, rather than following more generic advice. One of my favourite moments in any consultation is when the ‘penny drops’ as clients understand for the first time why they may not be cut out for life in the fast lane, or why alcohol seems to affect them more than others, or why they seem to have so much trouble sleeping. And then helping them to understand how to support themselves more specifically
NUTRIGENOMICS AND BREAST CANCER
In recent years, research into the role of SNPs in health has found important correlations with breast cancer, and we have only just begun this fascinating study. For example, women with the CYP19A1 and GSTM1 SNPs are more likely to be diagnosed with breast cancer. And what do these two genes do? They control the amount of oestrogen we make, and provide a pathway for its safe detoxification. Both areas that nutritional therapy can help with.
This is just one of the ways that nutrigenomics can help us understand why we may be vulnerable to breast cancer, and how we can reduce the risk of recurrence in future. The key difference between using an nutrigenomic counsellor compared with an online automated report is the ability to look at groups of genes in context. Rather than reporting one gene at a time, and relating it to the risk of the general population, my analysis looks at gene ‘systems’ to see where there may be bottle necks and risk factors, and then assesses that in the context of your diagnosis, health history and personal circumstances, a highly nuanced service that cannot be replicated by computers just yet.
Nutrigenomic testing is an ideal way to ensure your recovery plan is designed to work with your body and not against it. Although the work requires a high degree of scientific understanding, my focus is still based on natural healing: supplying the raw materials that your body needs, honouring the way your body works, creating a life that supports your health and personality, and allowing transformation to happen. This isn’t just about understanding your health, it’s about understanding how you tick.
A FOCUS ON HEALING
As a complementary therapist, my aim is always to support you and your body to heal rather than hunting down cancer cells and killing them. In fact, we still don’t have a watertight theory of cancer development, so your body’s healing mechanisms are the best chance we have. There is evidence to suggest that healthy bodies are able to target and resolve tumours and that most of us are dealing with cancer changes in some form or another most of the time. Our DNA is constantly under attack and we have a group of sirtuin genes whose job is to oversee genome repair, keeping things under control. But, sometimes the damage is too much, and repair responses go into overdrive, producing excessive growth that isn’t appropriate. This is just one of the cancer-inducing pathways we are just beginning to understand as our knowledge of the genome unravels.
We still don’t have all the answers, but it is increasingly clear that helping our genes to function well could be part of the solution. To do this, we have to take or eye off the microscope and look at the bigger picture. While scientists are busy searching for health in the laboratory health, we mere mortals are more likely to find the answers in nature — in the time-honoured ways that our ancestors recognised and revered. We don’t need a PhD in genetics to allow healing to happen, your brain is already telling you much of what you need, translating the messages from your genes to thoughts in your head, but I have found that an understanding of your own personal genome can really help you to believe what your body is already trying to tell you.
A QUICK TEST WITH LASTING RESULTS
DNA testing is easy and non-invasive: the test is done at home with a simple cheek swab that you post back to the lab. The resulting reports cover more than 175 SNPS that relate to the key breast cancer risks, and provide a lifelong resource for understanding your health. Perhaps it’s worth explaining that this type of genetic testing does not look at well-known cancer genes, such as the BRCA1 & 2 mutations. Neither does it look at any genetic mutations that may, or may not, be present in your tumour cells, which is the focus of Oncotype testing.
My own experience with nutrigenomics was back in the early days of DNA testing when the science was very new. In 2006, nine years after my breast cancer diagnosis and seven years after radically changing my diet to an ‘optimum nutrition’ programme, I developed ‘proliferative verrucous leukoplakia’ (PVL) in my mouth – a pre-cancerous condition with a high potential for malignancy and mortality. Professor Stephen Challacombe, who I consulted for a second opinion, told me I had five years before it inevitably turned malignant. True to form, I wasn’t prepared to take his word for it – so I used the 23andme service to get my DNA tested and then ran the raw data file through various DNA analysis programmes to discover my own nutritional vulnerabilities and implement some personalised nutrition changes over and above the healthy diet I was already eating. I also made some lifestyle changes, based on the things I knew were causing me stress. My first indications that this more personalised nutrition was making a difference was when the PVL disappeared. Six months after seeing Professor Challacombe, I went back to see my surgeon and the five patches of PVL on my tongue had completely gone, and have never come back. During five years of check ups he used to call me ‘the lady who cured herself’ and told me that in his experience it was unique.
WHEN ‘BEING HEALTHY’ ISN’T ENOUGH
Obviously, I was overjoyed by the result and I found this area so fascinating that I decided to go back to college once again to study for a postgraduate qualification based on personalised nutrition and nutrigenomics. I felt that this was the answer not just for me but for many of my clients too. It’s a lament I’ve heard from so many of my clients over the years: women who have ‘done everything right’ and still been diagnosed with cancer. As one person said to me just recently, ‘I guess just being healthy doesn’t cut it’. And that’s true. Some of us need more than the standard healthy advice. I believe that these individual variations make all the difference to cancer outcomes, allowing us to go beyond standard nutrition advice to build powerful personal protocols that take into account all aspects of our lives.
In my view, nutrigenomic testing makes sense for everyone dealing with breast cancer, no matter what your age, stage or prognosis. Fine-tuning your genes can help you deal with your diagnosis, support your body to withstand more treatment, help to minimise side effects, protect and rehabilitate your genome and, of course, pave the way for better future health
If you’d like to explore your genome with me, please book an appointment below:
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