When your body encounters a threat, such as a virus or injury, its your immune system that comes to your rescue.It attacks, damaging and killing all varieties of bacteria, viruses, and other microorganisms that happen to be in range—including some of the body's own cells.
Key cells involved in this reaction include the white blood cells, macrophages, and neutrophils, which produce powerful destructive chemicals known as free radicals.
In the presence of cancer or the invasion of a dangerous microorganism, your body quickly produces these highly reactive and unstable warrior molecules to take quick action against the enemy germ or physical insult. You can blame free radicals and other elements in the generalized defensive response for the swelling, redness, heat, and pain collectively known as inflammation. Because they are non-specific, free radicals cause the same damage to harmful bacteria as they do to healthy cells, if those healthy cells happen to be in their way.
After the free radicals finish their work, they're turned off, and are converted into non-reactive, harmless molecules. Antioxidant vitamins are essential to this conversion process, which is why you hear a lot about free radicals and the antioxidant vitamins A, C, D, and E.
Breast cancer cells start out as normal body cells,until something happens to start them growing out of control. The immune system plays a major role in limiting the development of these abnormalities, often before cancer has a chance to grow. This gets rid of many cancerous cells before they can do any harm. Damaged, pre-cancerous cells may be a constant presence, but an ever-alert immune system takes them out and protects us from many assaults of cancer that never get beyond the very earliest stage.
When the immune system fails
Occasionally, even though cells are changing from normal to abnormal, they may still appear to be normal. Their outer appearance (proteins and other molecules on their surface) may look unchanged, even though profound changes may be happening on the inside. In this way, these abnormal cells manage to escape attack by the immune system and grow and multiply without triggering an immune response. This is how it's possible for a tumor to form, even when your immune system is working normally. The tumor eventually becomes so altered and threatening that it can no longer hide its malignant character. The immune system is no longer fooled into recognizing these cells as normal, and launches its attack.
The attack may succeed, or it may come too late: the tumor may be beyond the power of the immune system by itself. The immune system may need help—bold measures such as:
· immune growth factors—medicines that stimulate the production of new immune cells;
· antibody medications—special antibodies made in a laboratory, designed to target a specific antigen on a cancer cell;
· vaccines—agents that stimulate your immune system to fight back, giving it a wake-up call to action; and
· non-immune-system intervention, such as:
o surgical removal of the harmful growth;
o chemotherapy; and
Intriguing new studies suggest that exercise, stress reduction, diet and fundamental but non-traditional interventions may strengthen the immune system. For example, improved immune cell function has been documented after people with melanoma, a malignant skin cancer, attended regular support group meetings. Other studies find that women in breast cancer support groups live longer than those who don't join such groups. Researchers speculate that one reason is the stress-reducing, immune-supporting effects that these groups provide.
Your body can be crippled by poor nutrition. This is true for healing a wound, building immune cell blood counts, and even managing stress.
The power of nutrition to strengthen the immune function is not yet fully understood. But two leaders in the field: Dr. Keith Block (University of Illinois and the Block Medical Center, Evanston, Illinois), and Dr. Mitch Gaynor (Strang-Cornell Cancer Prevention Center, New York City), focus on nutrition as a means of reducing cancer risk and cancer death and increasing quality of life. Their work emphasizes vegetarian diets and fat restriction, coupled with stress reduction and other complementary medicine therapies. They believe these factors combine to strengthen the immune system.
Proponents of these innovative, non-traditional therapies say that excess weight and eating too much cholesterol and other fats are risk factors for cancer. They say that fat appears to reduce white cell production, affecting T-cell and macrophage activity. Further, they say, obesity and a poor diet compromise the lymphatic system, making the body more vulnerable to infection and disease. Eating large amounts of protein, such as that found in animal products, they believe, contributes to these undesirable effects. Thus, their nutritional programs strictly limit proteins that come from animal foods and unhealthy fats.
Read the transcript of a Breastcancer.org Conference on food choices for cancer recovery.
Supplements vs. food
All experts agree that vitamins and other important nutrients are best eaten in whole foods rather than swallowed as processed supplements. Whole foods may contain many other valuable components that we currently know little about. Fresh fruits and vegetables, SURE grains, mushrooms, herbs, teas, omega-3 fatty acids (found in freshwater fish like salmon and mackerel), complex carbohydrates, yogurt, and seaweed are believed to increase the activity of T cells and their escort cells, and to increase the production of antibodies and fighting cells.
Researchers have long observed the positive effects of moderate amounts of exercise on the immune system. Now they're beginning to look at the effects moderate exercise can have on the immune systems of cancer patients in the midst of treatment. In one small study, researchers found that moderate exercise (three or more times a week) increased the immune cell counts of women undergoing breast cancer treatment back to normal levels, and also improved the women's mood and ability to handle their feelings comfortably.
It's well known that chronically high levels of stress hormones (like adrenaline) suppress the immune system and reduce the body's ability to defend or repair itself. That's why many cancer centers and hospitals have begun offering stress reduction therapy along with traditional cancer treatments such as chemotherapy and radiation. Meditation, visualization, yoga, and other relaxation techniques may help bolster your immune system and assist in fighting the effects of the cancer. Talk to your doctor or nurse about using these techniques in conjunction with your regular treatment.
There doesn't seem to be a food that begins with the letter "I" other than ice cream and dairy has been covered, so that's it for this week!