Cancer affects the body in numerous ways, so treating it successfully means drawing on a variety of therapies.
Cancer isn’t a simple disease. It attacks and affects the body in numerous, often insidious ways, which is one reason it can be difficult to treat. It causes inflammation, weakens the immune system, injures healthy cells, increases acidity and more. Conventional treatments such as chemotherapy can cause further unpleasant effects that impact the animal’s well-being. Treating cancer successfully means taking all these effects into consideration by drawing on multiple approaches and therapies to fight the disease while keeping the animal as comfortable as possible.
1. Killing cancer cells
The metabolism of cancer cells injures normal cells, which then have a harder time withstanding the effects of the cancer. They can’t function normally, and the body is weaker because of it. So part of the treatment should include methods to decrease the bad effects of cancer cell metabolism. Doing so will strengthen the body in general, and help increase the animal’s energy.
Much conventional treatment concentrates on interfering with the rapid division of cancer cells. This also affects normal cells that divide rapidly (though less rapidly than cancer cells), accounting for some of the more famous side effects of chemotherapy (vomiting, diarrhea, and low red and white blood cell counts). These in turn affect appetite, as well as the ability to absorb the nutrients needed to keep normal cells healthy.
Supplements such as slippery elm bark, pectin and aloe, though they do not necessarily affect cancer directly, can help keep an animal’s appetite strong and maintain intake of proper nutrition during chemotherapy.
2. Treating anemia caused by chemo
Anemia makes the animal feel weak and less energetic. There are three possible treatments for anemia caused by chemotherapy:
• Decrease or temporarily stop the chemotherapy until the anemia improves. Many veterinary oncologists will do this until the blood count is higher.
• Give injections of erythropoietin (also known as Epogen®) to stimulate production of red blood cells.
• Give the animal blood transfusions.
Human cancer patients given transfusions alone survived longer than those given Epogen (with or without transfusions). But blood transfusions can be expensive for dogs and cats. Fortunately, a Chinese herbal formula (Marrow Plus from Health Concerns) does a good job of treating anemia without depleting the body of energy.
3. Decreasing acidity
Cancer processes very large quantities of glucose and creates a great deal of lactic acid. This acid is excreted into the spaces between cells, and diffuses out from the tumor into the area around it. An acid environment increases the malignancy of cancer, and the tumor’s tendency to metastasize. Nor is acid healthy for normal cells. So if you can decrease the amount of acid in general, and reduce the quantity of glucose processed by cancer cells, you can limit the acidity of the environment around the tumor and make it less invasive.
An alkaline diet – although helpful – is not extreme enough to counteract what the cancer cells are doing. Sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) neutralizes acid, but too much can cause vomiting and ulcers. Calcium carbonate (which is found in antacids) can also neutralize acid; but cancer is often associated with excessively high calcium, which can cause additional problems such as kidney damage.
Proton pump inhibitors like omeprazole keep the positive ions (which create acidity) from being pumped out of the cancer cell. This makes the inside of the cancer cell significantly more acidic, thereby damaging it. So a combination of a low dose of omeprazole and baking soda can help decrease acidity outside the cell (good for normal cells) and dramatically increase acidity inside cancer cells (bad for cancer). This effect can be boosted by adding baking soda to the diet, but not so much that it causes side effects.
Cancer increases inflammation in the body. Inflammatory markers are higher in cancer patients and are associated with poor prognosis. A lower incidence of cancer is seen in people who regularly take NSAID-type anti-inflammatory drugs, but this does not hold true for the cortisone family.
Curcumin, a derivative of turmeric, has anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer actions and can also help with other inflammatory diseases such as arthritis.
5. Boosting immunity
The immune system plays a big part in the fight against cancer. Immune cells kill cancer and clean up the dead tissue and toxic areas associated with the death of cancer cells. Without a healthy, active immune system, cancer can’t be destroyed.
Neoplastic cells have many ways of fooling the immune system. They may coat themselves with protein, concealing from the immune cells the parts of the tumor’s surface that say “cancer”. The immune cells thus can’t recognize the cancer cells as being abnormal.
Proteolytic enzymes will dissolve the protein coat and reveal the surface to the immune cells again, so they can recognize the cancer as an enemy.
Cancer can also reduce the numbers of immune cells. Medicinal mushrooms can increase the number and activity of these immune cells, thereby strengthening the “army” that fights cells one on one.
The treatments discussed so far do three things:
1. Improve the health and surroundings of normal cells.
2. Improve the appetite, digestion and well-being of the patient.
3. Decrease the general health and malignancy of cancer cells.
Talking about tumors…
Something you may not know is that “a tumor” is actually thousands of tumors, because the cancer is constantly mutating. Over 280 different mutations have so far been identified in cancer cells, as compared to the genes in normal cells. These changes can occur in any combination and number. So what may seem a single tumor is actually a lot of different mini-tumors, related but not exactly the same.
Even if a treatment is ideally suited for the majority of cells in a tumor, sooner or later a mutation will occur that is resistant to that treatment. A treatment that works for one tumor does not necessarily work for the rest, so this is another reason you need to treat as many as possible at the same time. The more different ways you can directly fight cancer, the more cells will be killed initially. If the tumor returns, it will take longer to achieve this goal.
Though cancer is a scary diagnosis, the more you know about it, the more empowered you’ll be when it comes time to discussing treatment with your veterinarian. An approach that addresses as many different aspects of the disease as possible can strengthen your dog or cat’s chances of recovery.