The prevention of breast cancer – the answer is in our bodies

by Rebecca, Student, London UK

Recently I undertook a research project at Bath University, looking at the effect epigenetics can have on the formation of breast cancer. What I found was really amazing, and very relevant given the current trends of breast cancer worldwide.

Breast cancer is now so common it is hard to find someone who is untouched by the disease either directly or indirectly through friends and family. It has become the enemy within and women across the board are now encouraged to check their breasts for any sign of breast disease. October has become synonymous with pink ribbons and raising money for breast cancer research.

I have seen so much in the news and in general about the few options available for women with breast cancer when it comes to treatment and prevention. The most common option for treatment, and now also for prevention, is the removal of the breasts, and sometimes the ovaries too, even before any cancer is diagnosed, if the women are deemed to be at high risk of developing the disease.

Scientists have isolated the ‘breast cancer gene’ and can give genetic counselling to women with this gene as to what their options are. However, what I have found interesting is that the research or information I talk about below is seemingly not taken into consideration, let alone placed equally alongside all other treatments and preventatives.

As taught in many high school biology classes, every person has DNA (Deoxy-ribo Nucleic Acid), which is like a genetic code that contains all the instructions needed to build everything that makes up the body, and make it function. However, what is not often taught is that your DNA on its own is only part of the story of how you come to exist and what happens to you during life.

Think of your DNA as a really, really long strand of string in our bodies, that is wrapped around little proteins called Histones. Your DNA wraps around a Histone, and then chemical tags can bind to these Histones. It is this second layer of structure (the chemical tags and the wrapping around the protein) that is called the Epigenome. It is the Epigenome that shapes the structure of your DNA.

The proteins help to organize the DNA because they have tails that can become covered with chemical tags and affect the DNA interaction. Some sections of DNA become tightly wrapped up, making the genes in that section inactive or unreadable. However, the proteins can also relax genes, making them active and easily accessible. So in effect, although your DNA code remains the same for life, your epigenetics are flexible, and whether a gene is wrapped up tightly and difficult to read, or is relaxed and easily accessible, is in reaction to your environment and your lifestyle factors, things like stress or diet.1

 DNA structure

So how does this relate to cancer? Well, cancer develops when a cell becomes abnormal and begins to grow out of control. Out of control growth occurs by both turning off the genes coding for proteins that slow cell growth and turning on genes coding for proteins that speed up cell growth. Epigenetic events can affect many of the stages in tumour development; for example some of our lifestyle choices over time could lead to the section of gene that codes for slowing cell growth to be wrapped up tightly, while allowing the gene that codes for the speeding up of growth to be relaxed and readable, causing the increased chance of a formation of a cancerous tumour.

For my research project I focused on breast cancer, as it is the most common cancer among women in the United States, after skin cancer. It was estimated by Cancer Research UK that there were around 55,200 new cases of invasive breast cancer in the UK in 2014, that’s 150 cases diagnosed every day. And Worldwide, it is estimated that more than 1.68 million women were diagnosed with breast cancer in 2012, with around 11,400 breast cancer deaths in the UK in 2014.2

The epigenetic alterations that occur are not well understood, other than that they are key contributors to breast tumour formation. Prevention, treatments and diagnostics are being developed by some researchers to target epigenetic changes leading to breast cancer.3

One such researcher is Mina Bissell, who has shown that cancer is not only caused by cancer cells and out of control growth, but by an interaction between cancer cells and their surrounding cellular microenvironment.

Her talk on TEDExperiments that point to a new understanding of cancer’ is fascinating and she asks the same questions I used to try and get my biology teachers to answer all the time – how, when every human starts off as one single cell, a fertilised egg, do the cells in your nose know to become a nose, and your elbow cells to be your elbow? And why do you not wake up one day with a foot for a hand? The cells in your hand contain the same information, and therefore the same potential to be a foot, as your foot does. And yet it doesn’t happen. And so, the same question can be asked of cancer. Can we really say that one day, a single cell suddenly ups and decides its DNA is going to mutate, and it’s going to become cancer?

These questions led her to find that it is not a random event, but that all cells, including cancer, get their instructions from the context or the environment that surrounds them. She works with breast cancer, and so uses the example of a mammary gland (the gland in a woman’s breast that produces milk) to explain how this works.

They took just a tiny bit of a mammary gland, called an ‘Acinus’, where milk is created (shown in the picture below) and they asked, how it was that those cells formed that structure. It was believed up until this work, that the yellow cells around the red and blue ones in the picture were simply there to give the gland its structure. However, what they found when they took these cells out of the natural environment of the breast, and placed them in a dish, was that within a few days they forgot what they were, lost shape and stopped producing milk.

breast acinus

So what is the significance of this? What it shows is that environment and context overrides, and somehow signals to the cell to do different things. But the question became: How?

Mina Bissell thought that maybe the structural cells people always thought were only there for shape, actually contained information and signalled to the nucleus or ‘brain’ of the cell what to do.

She and her co-workers took cellular material containing the extracellular matrix (ECM) that surrounds breast cells, and put the cells which had forgotten what they were into it. In a few days, the cells had re-organised into fully functioning glands that produced milk, demonstrating once again it is the context the cell finds itself in that determines what it will do.

But it’s what she did next that was really incredible. She formed the hypothesis that if context is the most dominant thing, then a cancer cell restored to normal context should revert back to a normal non-cancerous cell.

And so they tested it – they placed a malignant out of control breast cancer cell into a normal extracellular matrix context, and it reverted back to being a normal, functioning breast cell.

She has given us a different way of viewing cancer – in her words, a more hopeful one – one where it is not a game of the genetic lottery, or one where you one day randomly wake up with cancer, but a view where cancer is the result of a context or environment that is signalling a normal healthy cell to become cancer. What her studies have shown is that the 70 trillion cells in our bodies are constantly communicating to the extracellular matrix, which is communicating back to the nucleus of the cell, keeping and restoring balance.

Mina Bissell has said herself that arrogance kills curiosity and passion, she doesn’t understand everything and that there is far more to be discovered4 and I agree. I think that we need to start matching up different research and findings to produce a larger understanding of what is at play in the body when cancer forms. What epigenetics offers us is that the way we live and the environment we live in, can literally affect the way our DNA is read and expressed. What Mina’s research offers us is an understanding that cancer is a product of its environment, not a random genetic mutation. If we put those two pieces of evidence together, it is possible to consider that the way we live, or the environment we live in, may affect the environment inside the body, and that this might cause it to stop signalling cells to be healthy, and instead signal them to become cancer.

The cure for cancer is not a wonder drug or magic pill, but perhaps will be found in the very body we often fight against. By restoring our internal and external environment to one that is healthy and harmonious, and living in a way where the environment does not stray so far from being so, we can, in effect, play a part in our present and our future wellbeing.

Could we possibly consider that our bodies are like one little cell in the environment that is life – and that our life gives us signals, that we can choose to respond or react to, either making our environment a healthy and harmonious one, or one that effectively ‘gives us cancer’? Could it be that the interaction in our environment on a large scale – the stress we are under, the diet we eat, how we react in situations etc., has an effect on our smaller internal environments, that in turn signal to our cells, either to be healthy or to be cancerous?

Unfortunately, this will not make drug companies millions, nor will it make anyone famous for finding a cure, and most radically, it will ask people to put their health before their ability to do as they like with their bodies, asking them to take responsibility for the scientifically confirmed effect our lifestyle has on our bodies. It is for this reason perhaps, that Mina Bissell’s research is not yet front page news, and that no one is connecting up the dots to what appears to be a very simple conclusion, that perhaps the key to understanding cancer and possibly preventing and/or healing it will be found in the way we live.

References:

  1. University of Utah. (2014). Epigenetics at a glance and gene control. Available: http://learn.genetics.utah.ed/content/epigeneticsLast accessed 23/11/16.
  1. Cancer Research UK (2016) Breast Cancer Statistics. Available: http://www.cancerresearchuk.org/health-professional/cancer-statistics/statistics-by-cancer-type/breast-cancer#DIKlwm8WjE4QgdDp.99 Last accessed: 23/11/16
  1. Dworhin A et al. (2009). Epigenetic alteration in the breast. Seminars in cancer biology. 19 (3), p165-171.
  2. Mina Bissell. (2012). Experiments that point to a new understanding of cancer. Available: https://www.ted.com/talks/mina_bissell_experiments_that_point_to_a_new_understanding_of_cancer?utm_source=tedcomshare&utm_medium=referral&utm_campaign=tedspread Last accessed 23/11/16.

 

Read more:

1) Lifestyle choices and breast cancer prevention  

2) Breast cancer: Knowing what I know now, I would definitely do things differently. 

3) Healing breast cancer  

670 thoughts on “The prevention of breast cancer – the answer is in our bodies

  1. It still seems to be missing in our societal consciousness that we do indeed play a massive part in creating our own illness and disease; likewise how we also play a pivotal part in our own healing.

  2. What a fascinating blog. Why are we not testing this and experimenting with it on a big scale? What we have done so far hasn’t worked very well. We have nothing to lose, only our health to gain or maintain if we change the way we live.

  3. Fascinating and revealing of a truth we all know that the way we live and the choices we make are reflected in our physical body.

  4. This is a fascinating blog on the scientific research on the development of cancer cells and how this is linked to its environment. It makes sense that if we allow our environment to affect us that this is going to have an impact on the body. The more separated we are from our body and then developing a deeper relationship with it, the more our body naturally has to correct and realign itself back to the harmony and balance it was designed to be in through illness, disease or by other means. It feels that changing our lifestyle choices plays a key part in supporting our body and preventing the development of disease within our body.

  5. I have come away from reading this with a greater understanding and appreciation for our incredible human bodies. And how I am affects much more than I think.

  6. When we stop and consider the death rates of cancer and in this example of breast cancer, is it not wise to review it openly and honestly as to how we are living that is causing such figures. Epigenetic too makes absolute and complete sense and we do tend to take on the behaviours and habits of our parents, which on the surface makes sense; it’s a DNA linked cancer but more and more it is being confirmed that the way we are living our life and our environments is what has a huge influence on our health. It is whether we are prepared to take responsibility for that or not.

  7. I really love this article. And, true – there’s no money to be made in this, but we wouldn’t need an expert telling us what to do to try this out either.

  8. There is a lot fear around breast cancer, and the October affiliation with it is just one example of how so many women do not want this condition to continue as part of our lives, but what is being presented as available to us as women is ways to ‘combat’ this dis-ease. There is very little by way of supporting women to re-connect with their deep and beautiful love. There is however, Esoteric Women’s Health which is doing exactly that, and the transformative affects of this are enormous – far more so than rallying and striving for answers.

  9. It is easy to go about our lives without checking our breasts for changes or lumps, however it should be an important part of our routine, cancer is a signal that a what otherwise would be a normal healthy cell has changed, could it be that it is a signal for us to change the choices we are making and in turn is asking us to change the way we live.

  10. Is it our genetics that cause breast cancer, or is it possible that there’s an even deeper root? We used to think that the earth was flat and that mentality got us nowhere. If we are the intelligent and open species we claim to be, we wouldn’t be so stuck in our ways insisting that things are the way they are, when it is so obvious that there is more to life and our ignorance.

  11. I found that true answers to problems are always simple and they always ask us to take responsibility. That is probably why the most simple answers like this one, that make so much sense, are not front page news. We like complicated answers so we can say we cannot apply them or we like easy answers that don’t ask us to change our lifestyle but the truth is that we know that we have to change our way one day if we want true change.

    1. Beautifully simple and powerful expressed, Lieke.
      If something is not simple it is not the soul that is communicating, but our head, who loves complication and control. And we do almost anything to keep this ‘bubble’ in its place, so that we don’t have to take responsibility and bring more love into the way we live our lives.

  12. Could it be that when we get a recurrence of cancer after a few years in remission it is due to our returning to the way of life we lived (that may have contributed to the dis-ease in the first place)? Research into those who made lifestyle changes versus those who returned to their old patterns of behaviour after cancer, would be an interesting area of study.

  13. Cancer research focuses on looking at treatments outside of ourselves and our lifestyles, with a magic pill or research into vaccines. Yet the life we have lived results in our illnesses. But of course there’s no profit in researching lifestyle medicine.

  14. I absolutely loved reading this incredibly powerful blog, and Mina Bissell’s research on epigenetics is worthy of a Nobel Prize because of its far-reaching implications of how we look at cancer, and I’m sure all illness and disease for that matter. It shows the amazing intelligence of the human body that is so much more advanced than we ever gave it credit for, and to know that we have the power to make lifestyle changes that have a direct effect on our very own DNA which controls all cellular functionality is incredible. But as Rebecca mentioned, this research is also asking people to be more responsible with their behaviours and does not leave room for blaming anyone else, or ‘bad luck’ for people getting cancer.

  15. We learn to fight against our bodies in our pursuit of wanting to live how we want to not connecting it to how the choices we are making affects our health and vitality until we are forced to stop or we become ill and only when it is serious enough to possibly consider how pushing our body against its natural limit and rhythm brought the clearing that was needed to heal the abuse we allowed.

  16. “it is not a random event, but that all cells, including cancer, get their instructions from the context or the environment that surrounds them” This underlines the truth shared by Serge Benhayon that ‘there are no accidents’.

  17. The common things pretty much everyone has experienced to do with our health and body are the common cold (see it even has the word common in it!), the flu, aches and pains, spots, cold sores. Pretty much all of these point to the fact that we have a part to play. Nothing is random and even with the cold and flu it is clear that even if there are germs and viruses around, we have a part to play in making ourselves susceptible. So why don’t we take this wisdom further? Most of us don’t even want to accept responsibility for these simpler cases, preferring to find something we can blame thus thinking we are a victim of circumstance.

  18. This is so fascinating. It actually does make sense to think that if our body already has the intelligence that puts us in a specific order to keep it in homeostasis, the same science must be applicable to the relationship between our entire body and its environment – and what becomes obvious is that, if anything, it is our choices that would get in the way of this stupendous intelligence.

  19. This makes complete sense. Why should cells suddenly do something different? If their environment has changed then they are receiving a different message and all they are doing is responding. We have the power to remain healthy by giving our bodies a healthy environment to live in. If we do not do that then they will change to suit the environment that we have created.

  20. “By restoring our internal and external environment to one that is healthy and harmonious”…. this is an extremely revealing and important comment… and something that we all would so much benefit by living by.

    1. The harmony that is offered to the body by our movements speaks volumes when we choose to make more loving choices. A great starting point!

  21. “What epigenetics offers us is that the way we live and the environment we live in, can literally affect the way our DNA is read and expressed…” This is amazing as it suggests our choices in lifestyle, and the relationship we have with ourselves has something to do with the development of human dis-ease… we certainly have a greater input into our health and wellbeing.. its not only about taking medication, but more. Our medicine is also about our lifestyle choices.

  22. I love how you have opened up the research into Breast Cancer, and with the support of the research done by Mina Bissell been able to look deeper into why breast cancer is still prevalent in our society regardless of the amount of research, effort and technology that has been put towards trying to cure it. “What Mina’s research offers us is an understanding that cancer is a product of its environment, not a random genetic mutation.” When we see it like this it brings a much greater awareness to how we live and how we react to life, and brings the responsibility back to ourselves. Rebecca you have a great way of making something complex simple and easy to follow and understand.

  23. I agree Jane it is about a stop moment, an opportunity to reflect and review where we are and taking time to really feel, connect and know that the choices I make can either loving and nurturing or not.

  24. Changing the way you live and being more responsible for your choices and behaviour is challenging and confronting at times but it is actually very very joyful as it allows us to be more of who we naturally are. Being who you naturally are or cancer? It’s our choice I guess.

  25. Having recently heard of another woman being diagnosed with breast cancer I was very interested to re read your amazingly informative blog Rebecca. There is something seriously wrong with the way we disregard our bodies and still expect them to be healthy and function perfectly. No matter what the illness, we are all guilty of this . Prevention is better than cure. We all need to listen to our bodies and act on its loving words..

    1. Eduardo a great question that we can fear and hate something that is actually there to nurture and support.

  26. Such a fantastic article and what I find fascinating Rebecca is your point about how this has not yet made front paper headlines. This along with many other things can be exposing the potential corruption that plays out with pharmaceutical drug companies, governments and anyone else that has an investment in this.

  27. Thankyou for sharing the research you have done Rebecca. I love the work of Mina Bissell. We need to look to our everyday choices Conventional medicine is now waking up to the fact that many illnesses relate to our lifestyle choices – and can this support a disease from returning ( as is only too common with cancer) or indeed prevention in the first place.

  28. If I said to someone the answer to your cancer comes from your body, they would probably look puzzled, maybe even very angry, mainly because we do not like to think we know all there is to know about ourselves and the world. We like to think others know best and that we couldn’t possibly have all the answers, especially to our illnesses. Yet what if we did? Would we listen to our own wisdom, would we understand the body’s way of healing back to true health?

  29. Absolute gold what you have shared here Rebecca. Thank-you, its definitely worthy of deep consideration as it makes so much sense.

  30. This research you share is quite amazing Rebecca. Thank you for sharing this with us all and for the insight into breast cancer that most would not have access to.

  31. It is so key that how we live determines our health. What an amazing experiment to share the way that cells change based on their environment. It just makes so much sense and it is what we all need to hear. It comes back to responsibility and if we are truly prepared to take responsibility.

  32. This is one on my favorite blogs, it is so obvious that the way we live determines our health, but so many of us want to turn a blind eye to this fact. There was a stage in my life that I wanted to ignore this, I was not willing to take responsibility, physically and certainly not energetically for how my actions and choices affect my health. When we are in denial, we justify that nobody deserves cancer and that Aunty Mary was so nice, or my friend was taken too young. When you are clear on what this research means and you connect, you know that it’s not about deserve, as cancer is not a punishment, it’s not about nice because it is not a game of being good to seek reward.

    The key is knowing we are love and expressing in truth of this knowing. To qualify this, being love is honouring that you are a body of love and therefore you should treat yourself as if you are precious as a baby, second, being true means your actions are not geared to appease or please others but instead hold yourself in a deep level of care, that naturally extends to others. Now this is an environment that a cancer cell has little to no hope of forming in, unless the cancer is there to clear out ill choices from other lives but that is another blog all togther.

  33. This was a very interesting read, I love the way that you have presented this information- in such a simple and easily understandable format- that is a real skill. I now have a much greater understanding of DNA and how DNA works.

  34. Wow Rebecca – if environment is such a powerful factor in the health of our cells, what is the environment we create every day with the choices we make? Do we promote toxicity, anger and aggression? Do we ingest the poison of jealousy, separatism and individuality? If we do, then surely it starts to make sense that our body will start to struggle and our outer world will reflect that too. The environmental damage we see in the news is super serious, but as you show this situation starts first with the way we are in ourselves.

  35. I think we are all aware how common breast cancer is these days but I am not sure that we have the same awareness of how much less common it was only 50 years ago. There seems to be little questioning as to how such a massive change has come about, on the whole we just all seem to accept it unquestioningly. The attitude seems to be that so long as it isn’t me with the diagnosis I don’t really care how widespread it has become or why.

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s